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Higher Education: Managing Institutional Change in an African University

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Change is inevitable in the lives of nations, institutions, and individuals, but it is not easy because of entrenched mindsets, habits, and behaviors. USIU-Africa was no exception.

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Higher Education: Managing Institutional Change in an African University
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After the approval of the USIU-Africa’s 2015-2020 Strategic Plan and my 90 Days of Listening, I rolled my sleeves for the exacting and exciting work of leading institutional change. I had participated in similar exercises in various contexts and leadership positions, but never in an African university and as vice chancellor. So, my previous experiences in Canada and the United States could only serve, at best, as broad guideposts.

I had to consciously guard against the dangers of transplantation from the far better resourced, much older, and larger American and Canadian universities I was familiar with, notwithstanding the fact that USIU-Africa partly saw itself as an American institution. It was jointly accredited in Kenya and the United States, and had until the early 2000s been a branch campus of an American university by the same name based in San Diego, California. In fact, the position prospectus had explicitly indicated familiarity with both higher education systems was a desirable attribute for the next vice chancellor.

Importing Educational Models

I had discussed the question of the export of foreign higher education models to Africa and other regions of the global South in the chapter on internationalization in my book, The Transformation of Global Higher Education, 1945-2015. I noted, “The new universities created after independence often replicated the institutional structures, instructional practices, and intellectual values of their colonial predecessors and imperial models… across much of Africa, at the turn of the twenty-first century, instructional languages, practices, and materials, as well as administrative systems and nomenclature, modes of academic organization, research methodologies, paradigms, and themes remained tied to the patterns and trends in Europe.”

The American university model joined the fray as the numbers of American trained academics and prestige of US universities in Africa rose. I wrote, “The model is variously encapsulated in the preeminence of the research university, the prominence given to liberal arts education, or the primacy of market values. In its contemporary incarnation, it is seen as a system whose institutions have become ever more commercialized, their governance corporatized, students consumerized, knowledge production commodified, learning credentialized, and faculty casualized.”

It is a malleable model “that allows its exporters and importers to project attributes, both real and imaginary, that they wish to highlight and embrace in branding and bracing themselves in the intensifying global competition for resources, reputations, and relevance. The model manifests itself in the establishment of American-style institutions, adoption of US-centered academic cultures, and performance of US-institutional identities.” Thus, the importation of the US model involves “the appropriation and performance of the institutional structures, styles, and symbols of US higher education.”

This is what I found at USIU-Africa, an institution that combined, sometimes uneasily, its Americanness and Kenyanness. Hybrid identities for institutions or individuals can be a source of creativity and empowerment. They can also generate perpetual confusion, contradictions and inconsistencies that engender institutional inertia and paralysis. This was sometimes manifested in continuous selectivity in which people would invoke whichever American or Kenyan university practice that was most advantageous to whatever position they supported and wished to advance.

USIU-Africa embraced several key aspects of American universities, such as the general education curriculum for undergraduate studies and the semester system. On a lighter note we celebrated some American holidays and events such as the Fourth of July, Black History Month, and named our three semesters Fall, Spring, and Summer that had no connection to Kenyan weather seasons—the Summer Semester coincided with the coldest part of the year in Kenya. An interesting example of cognitive dissonance that underlined more serious challenges of reconciling divergent institutional identities.

American accreditation gave our students wishing to continue their studies in the United States and in parts of Europe an advantage in that their credits and degrees were recognized. Students from other local universities had to navigate various barriers to entry given the poor perception of the quality of African higher education outside the continent sanctified by their relatively low standing in global rankings that have become increasingly ubiquitous and critical in the international division of intellectual labor.

But USIU-Africa didn’t adopt several key features of American universities. Faculty never underwent the rigors of the tenure system, nor were they entitled to sabbaticals, although they could take unpaid leave of absence. While several schools offered graduate degrees, there was no graduate school which could coordinate graduate enrollments and standards across the university. Despite purported commitment to enhancing research there was no holistic research policy and protocols.

The typical two semester system in American universities was turned into a fully-fledged three semester system. Faculty were obliged to teach for two semesters, and get paid as adjuncts for the third. Given the relatively low pay, most taught all three semesters, leaving little room for research. Students paid tuition each semester rather than for the academic year, which made annual financial planning challenging. But it also meant students who could afford to take all three semesters could finish their undergraduate degrees in about three years instead of the expected four.

These are some of the contexts that framed the various changes the university leadership and I undertook during my six year tenure as vice chancellor. There are many dynamics and dimensions of institutional change. Borrowing from the contentious neo-liberal discourse of national reform for economic growth and development, the following seven stand out: getting priorities right, getting governance right, getting policies right, getting processes right, getting communication right, getting resources right, and getting culture right.

In this reflection, I’ll mainly focus on the first four, and examine the others in more detail in subsequent reflections.

Setting Strategic Priorities

The university’s priorities under my tenure were clearly laid out in the new 2015-2020 strategic plan. I was impressed by the robust, transparent, inclusive, and participatory process through which the plan was developed prior to my arrival, which resonated with my own views and experiences with effective strategic planning elsewhere.

Over the next six years we assiduously sought to implement and evaluate the plans’s five priorities and twelve objectives. The monitoring and evaluation matrix measured more than 400 action items, which we later agreed was rather too much as some of these were routine operational matters that would go on regardless of any plan.

The five goals included: (1) “Provide globally competitive and innovative academic programs incorporating research and co-curricula activities for holistic education;” (2) “Expand and efficiently manage the university’s financial and human resources to meet its capital and operating expenditures;” (3) “Improve human resource management using best practices;” (4) “Expand, maintain, and optimize use of physical facilities and technology;” and (5) “Increase visibility and enhance quality services to internal and external customers.”

I’ll address the implementation of most of these goals in later reflections. Here, I want to discuss process issues.

Strategic plans provide a critical guide for institutional direction, ranging from introducing new initiatives to strengthening the university’s mission, values and role in society to the allocation of resources to organizational restructuring. They are not cast in stone in so far as the external landscape, and even internal environment, often presents unforeseen challenges and opportunities.

For example, when the strategic plan was approved in March 2016, we didn’t anticipate the changes in the national examination system for the Kenya Certificate Secondary Education that led to a sharp drop in students eligible for university entry. And no one of course could have predicted the massive devastations and disruptions of the Covid-19 pandemic. But we had to navigate both, a subject I’ll discuss more fully in a later reflection.

Suffice to say here, fidelity to strategic plans and priorities has to be counterbalanced by flexibility, agility, and adaptability to manage unforeseen circumstances, while maintaining adherence to institutional values and protecting fundamental institutional interests.

Successful implementation of strategic priorities depends to a large extent on the coherence, commitment, competence, and effectiveness of the university leadership at all levels. Reflecting its hybrid identity, USIU-Africa had an unusual and uncommonly large governance structure by the standards of Kenyan and American universities.

The Dynamics of Governance

USIU-Africa has ten governing organs and persons. At the apex is the Board of Trustees, the ultimate fiduciary, a self-perpetuating body that appoints the chancellor, and the university council. The chancellor is the ceremonial head of the institution who presides over commencement among other prescribed duties, while the university council appoints and evaluates the vice chancellor (I was appointed by the Board of Trustees as the council was created just before my inauguration) and provides oversight and approves university policies and budgets.

The vice chancellor is the chief executive officer of the university who oversees its administrative and academic affairs and chairs the management board whose members run different divisions, and the university senate that deliberates and makes decisions or recommendations on academic matters. The management and senate constitute governing organs in their own right. The university charter and statutes revised in compliance with Kenya’s Universities Act of 2012, also recognize the faculty, staff, student, and alumni councils as governance organs.

I had to juggle all these governance bodies in addition to the various internal and external constituencies of stakeholders. They included students, faculty, and staff who didn’t always feel adequately represented by their respective councils, or who I had to engage independently in any case as the university’s vice chancellor.

In their exit reports and re-accreditation letters conducted during my tenure, both regulators, the Commission for University Education in Kenya and the Western Association of Schools and Colleges in the US (the latter posts its institutional evaluation reports on its website) identified governance challenges as one of the university’s biggest structural constraints that needed urgent attention and rectification.

They singled out the relationship between the Board of Trustees and the University Council, in which the latter was cleaved from the former. Even more problematic was the relationship between the Faculty Council and the University Senate in which the former lost many of its functions to the latter and increasingly assumed a welfare role akin to a trade union. At every leadership retreat management ran sessions on the roles and responsibilities of the different governing bodies sometimes assisted by external consultants. Unfortunately, these structural challenges were not addressed by the board or council despite repeated requests by management, which proved costly in managing crises as I’ll discuss later.

Thus, the governance system at USIU-Africa had its own unique features that were neither distinctly Kenyan nor American. Such creativity was to be expected and in some cases was commendable. However, all too often this resulted in unnecessary structural dysfunctions.

Unlike public and private universities in Kenya, the top governance organs were not appointed by the government or the proprietors of the institutions. In my six years not once did the board or council conduct self evaluations as is common among governing boards in American universities. In late 2018, the US-based Association of Governing Boards was commissioned, at considerable cost, to undertake a survey titled, Comprehensive Evaluation of the Vice Chancellor and Baseline Assessment of the Board of Trustees and University Council, the first in the university’s history. The AGB’s report was never tabled and discussed by the board or council, let alone was a summary shared with the university community as promised.

Moreover, during my tenure I was only evaluated for half the time, so there were years when I had no key performance indicators that could be cascaded to the rest of the academic and administrative leadership in the institution. Many members of the board and council with academic backgrounds and from the US found it rather strange and several left within a short time of their appointment to the loss of the university. Many were disconcerted by the lack of understanding of university institutions displayed by several key members on the board and council.

By the time I left, virtually all the leaders of the council including the chair, vice chair, and chairs of committees had non-academic backgrounds. This undermined understanding of shared governance and fostered a culture of micromanagement, which is almost invariably counterproductive and doesn’t allow managers to optimize their professional skills and take responsibility and learn from failures.

In this, governance at USIU-Africa reflected the university’s location in a slowly democratizing society whose political culture and socialization were shackled by deeply entrenched reflexes of authoritarianism and the legacies of rule by decree. Clearly, universities, even international transplants, are immersed in their domestic political ecologies, as several prestigious American universities have discovered in Asia from China to Singapore to the United Arab Emirates. In Europe, there’s the case of the American styled Central European University, established by the Hungarian-born American philanthropist, George Soros, which was forced to relocate from Budapest, Hungary to Vienna in Austria by the illiberal and populist regime of Victor Orbán.

This is of course neither new nor peculiar to universities fashioned after the US model. Africa’s colonial and postcolonial universities borrowed the institutional shells of universities in the imperial metropoles, not the substance of structural autonomy and academic freedom that was often contested of course.

Managing contemporary universities is harder than ever as many university leaders everywhere would attest. Besides the internal stakeholders, externally there are what are called in the United States the helicopter or snowplow parents, media pundits, politicians, and ideologues for whom universities often provide soft targets, and the ubiquitous social media with its limitless capacity for fueling mendacity, acrimony, trolling, academic incivility and bullying.

Other powerful external actors include alumni, the private sector, philanthropic donors, international and intergovernmental agencies, and non-governmental and community organizations, all harboring their own pressing and, sometimes unrealistic and conflicting, expectations of higher education institutions and their leaders.

Arising out of the above, are ideological pressures on universities from across the political spectrum for representativeness. In short, in many countries including Kenya universities have become embroiled in the culture wars and incendiary polarization and partisanship of the larger polity.

Undertaking Institutional Reform

When I joined USIU-Africa, I was immediately struck by the excessive power and expectations of the vice chancellor. In keeping with authoritarian institutional or national cultures, the VC was the “big chief,” almost singularly responsible for making many academic and administrative appointments, signing checks even for mundane amounts, and dispensing favors and punishment to those who crossed him or her.

It replicated the highly personalized and patrimonial exercise of power in African autocracies. A more generous reading is that it reflected the pangs of expansion from a small institution to a larger and more complex one that needed more explicit and sustainable structures, policies, and processes. I had witnessed similar transitions at several Canadian and American universities. At USIU-Africa there were no academic departments; instead, there were programs. Colleges did not have their own dedicated budgets that they controlled. They had no staff for communication, advancement, faculty development, and external outreach. Everything was centralized.

One of my priorities and expectations from the board and later the council was to undertake institutional reform, to align organizational structure to strategic priorities, build on the university’s assets for future growth, raise the quality and reputation of its programs and partnerships, and generate more revenues to support the bold aspirations of the strategic plan.

In the first year, management and I initiated several key initiatives. One was an exhaustive forensic audit covering the previous five years to improve operations and effective systems university-wide. The audit facilitated the integration of our financial, human resource, and electronic systems to remove opportunities for mistakes or malfeasance.

Another was an extensive and inclusive organizational review, which was led by an external consultant, titled Job Evaluation, Salary & Organization Structure Review. The recommendations from the review led to organizational restructuring and strengthening talent management processes. The outcomes included adjustments of salaries and allowances, the establishment of clearer career pathing advancement for staff, the establishment of academic departments, and appointment of new school deans and department chairs. When I joined the university, all the deans were male and none was a full professor; one was even an assistant professor who had not been promoted in more than twenty years.

Both were the first comprehensive reviews of their kind in the university’s history. Predictably, there were “winners” and “losers” from these and subsequent reforms. In proceeding years, we undertook several surveys out of which some new policies were developed. This always involved exhaustive consultations with the university’s key internal constituencies and governance bodies, as well as benchmarking with other universities locally, regionally, and internationally. For the audits we often engaged reputable consultancy firms.

As can be expected, the various reforms had their supporters, opponents, and straddlers. Or to put it differently, each new policy and structural change had its advocates, antagonists, and ambivalents. This was in keeping with the so-called 40-40-20 rule, which posits that when trying to influence a community for change 40% tend to agree, the other 40% need to be convinced, and the other 20% will never be persuaded. So leaders should spend their time on the middle 40%.

But the 20% often bide their time and regroup. They tend to use any future crisis to articulate and generalize their grievances. Some even resort to ideological, racist, misogynistic, xenophobic attacks, bullying and mobbing of the leaders and their supporters. I mentioned some of the xenophobic attacks I was occasionally subjected in the last two reflections. In the age of social media those opposed to change that don’t benefit their personal or sectarian interests eagerly mobilize social media for virulent personal attacks.

I always urged the academic and administrative leadership to stay the course, to keep our eyes on the prize of institutional change for the continued enhancement of our beloved university. As part of this agenda, it was imperative to follow institutional priorities, policies, processes, and procedures. For each reform initiative we followed what I call the 6Ps: clearly identifying the problem we were trying to rectify, the policy that would guide any review, the process we would follow, best practices in other institutions at home and abroad, the desired product, and determining how we would promote and operationalize it.

In the language of change management models this entails, first, identifying the need for change; second, determining the change agenda including cost and risk analysis; third, assessing the needs and interests of stakeholders and communicating with them; fourth is the implementation stage; and finally, the monitoring phase.

There are of course many models of change management. One is Kurt Lewis’s three-stage model of “unfreezing” organizational behavior, implementing change, and “refreezing” by sustaining the enacted change. Another is John Kotter’s eight step model that comprises creating a sense of urgency, building a guiding coalition, forming a strategic vision, empowering broad-based action, communicating the change vision, generating short-term wins, consolidating gains and producing more change, and institutionalizing new approaches.

The ADKAR model focuses on how people adapt to change through awareness, desire, knowledge, ability, and reinforcement. For its part, the McKinsey 7-S model calls for paying attention to strategy, structure, systems, skills, staff, style, and shared goals. The change acceleration process model advances seven steps including identifying a champion or champions to lead change, creating a shared need, shaping a vision, mobilizing commitment, monitoring progress, and integrating change in the organization’s systems, structures and culture.

Several scholars have adapted some of these models from industry to universities as competition and demands for value and impact among higher education institutions intensify. Change in universities is especially hard because they are concentrated communities of experts, valorize shared governance, characterized by organizational decentralization, and have multiple divergent constituencies, all of which tends to make them risk averse.

The diversity of change models noted above underscore the variability and multi-dimensionality of organizational change in higher education in terms of the processes for executing change, people participation and communication, leadership commitment and style, and developing empowerment behaviors and culture.

Among the numerous surveys we conducted in subsequent years included those on student retention, student employability, and alcohol and drug abuse. Among the newly developed policies were those on sexual harassment, inclusion of persons living with disability, data protection, crisis management, fraud and corruption prevention, whistleblowing, religion on campus, business continuity, and signing authority limits stipulating thresholds for different signatories.

The reviews undertaken comprised those of the constitutions of the faculty, staff, and student councils, the HR Policies and Procedures Manual, Employee Handbook, and Faculty Handbook. In 2019-2020, the university developed its first full research manual. Other audits encompassed a legal audit, review of the internal audit function, and the university’s risk register.

The process of institutional reform, with its complex dynamics and dimensions, demands and disappointments, as well as opportunities and gratifications taught me a lot about how notoriously difficult but critical it is to implement progressive, effective, and sustainable change in universities as they seek to strengthen their academic programs, operational systems, service delivery, and social impact.

Change is inevitable in the lives of nations, institutions, and individuals, but it is not easy because of entrenched mindsets, habits, and behaviors. USIU-Africa was no exception. Ironically, that was a source of equanimity for me.

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Paul Tiyambe Zeleza is a Malawian historian, academic, literary critic, novelist, short-story writer and blogger. He is the Associate Provost and North Star Distinguished Professor at Case Western Reserve University.

Ideas

Re-imagining the African University

In relation to their knowledge production, African universities should acknowledge the importance of producing research in support of development, while retaining their liberal education focus, he advises.

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If they are not to be condemned to irrelevance, universities in Africa must strengthen their research and teaching and adopt a proactive stance in responding to the institutional and developmental demands of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).

This is according to Paul Zeleza, the former the vice-chancellor of the United States International University-Africa, and at present the North Star distinguished professor and associate provost at Case Western Reserve University, a private institution in Cleveland, Ohio, in the United States.

“Universities have a crucial role to play in pushing governments and the private sector to ensure that Africa has agency in the 4IR [Fourth Industrial Revolution] and, accordingly, derives significant benefits,” says Zeleza, giving warning that the continent may otherwise be “left behind or unduly exploited, as was the experience during the previous three industrial revolutions”.

“Instead of being what Kenyan pan-Africanist thinker Ali Mazrui used to describe as ‘pawns’ in the global system, Africans must become 4IR players,” he urges, citing the need for the continent to acquire sufficient high-performance computing capacity to undertake the complex data analytics and processing of big data sets that are required as part of the 4IR.

In the absence of such high-performance computing, Zeleza says, the continent will be indebted to external data processing and storage firms and “will not even receive the trinkets it was once paid [under colonialism] for its raw materials”.

In a parallel move, African universities should also make every effort to improve their research and pedagogic functions, seeking to support domestic development while also boosting their standing and the quality of their contributions at international level, he advises.

“The issue of relevance is a complex one,” Zeleza says. “It comes from the university’s anchoring in its society but that should not exclude being global … because, whether we like it or not, higher education is global.”

Indeed, he urges, “it is important that African universities do not surrender the global to others”.

Indigenisation vs internationalisation

“We also have to be global,” he says. “An appropriate balance has to be struck between indigenisation and internationalisation.”

However, Zeleza notes, higher education institutions on the continent are, at present, generally failing to make their mark globally, which is creating institutional harm in terms of their access to resources, students and staff.

For example, he says, Africa has yet to acknowledge the importance of research, including on critical issues such as climate change and health, in its funding priorities.

“A report produced by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in June 2021 indicated that the continent’s expenditure on research and development, which includes the universities, was very low at about 0.5% of GDP, compared with a global average of about 1.9%.

“Meanwhile, its share of total global research and development expenditure was about 1%, with most of this taking place in South Africa and North Africa, indicating the dire conditions for research elsewhere on the continent.”

Pedagogy at global standard

Zeleza also notes that, while African universities should be providing pedagogy at a global standard, “this is not [their] current reputation in general, as is illustrated by the relatively low number of international students at higher education institutions on the continent”.

“In addition, and notwithstanding the justified criticism of the international university rankings, African universities fare poorly on these tables,” Zeleza says. “In the Times Higher Education rankings for 2021, only 60 of the 1,500 ranked institutions were from Africa.

“Whatever the misgivings about the rankings, they are used as a marketing tool and, in this way, influence the flows of students, faculty staff and resources.”

In this regard, Zeleza cites a preference among the Kenyan elite for sending their children to universities abroad as an example of the depths to which the reputations of many African universities have sunk.

It is a dynamic that he is keen to see reversed, particularly given what he describes as the inappropriate and often damaging nature of the education offered to African students at universities in North America, the United Kingdom and Australia.

“I used to see a lot of young students from Africa undertaking undergraduate studies in the United States and it was clear these kids were lost at a personal level and intellectually,” he says.

“They were not being developed in ways that were good for them. They were forced to deal with being treated as second- or third-class because of race issues; and they were not being equipped with any knowledge about their own countries, their own societies.”

However, African universities can reverse what Zeleza describes as their decline and reclaim their relevance by adopting greater agency and a more strategic approach in relation to their key functions, including their pedagogy and research, and their public-service and technological innovation roles.

The importance of research

In relation to their knowledge production, African universities should acknowledge the importance of producing research in support of development, while retaining their liberal education focus, he advises.

“Whatever particular questions the research is trying to answer, it should broadly seek to address fundamental social and community issues, as these are articulated in national, regional and global plans.

“The generation of knowledge for social impact is something that I think our universities should always have in front of them.”

In this respect, Zeleza is encouraged by the production of a new table for assessing the performance of higher education institutions according to their social impact – that is, in relation to the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – which is now being produced as part of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

“This produces quite different results from those produced by the traditional ranking methodology,” he says. “So, for example, these new rankings have recently listed Australasian universities at the top rather than your Oxfords or Harvards.”

In fulfilling their public service and engagement function, Zeleza stresses the importance of African universities trying to be intentional in building critical strategic and transformational relationships with multiple stakeholders, including the government; the private sector; intergovernmental institutions; community bodies; and philanthropic organisations.

“Universities have to engage their governments, partly in their role as major funders but also in order to provide the kind of research that can be translated into policy,” he says.

While advocating the establishment of mutually beneficial triple-helix arrangements among public- and private-sector partners and universities, he also urges higher education institutions to insist on a greater role in shaping international and continental initiatives.

For example, citing an ambitious African Development Bank programme to provide up to 50 million young Africans with digital skills that can make them employable, he notes the disproportionate influence of external consultants, who can typically hail from the Global North.

The problem, he says, is that African universities are then asked to bid to participate in the implementation of these schemes “but without having been involved in crafting the vision or the agenda for the initiative in the first place”.

Funding of universities

This also brings into sharp focus the ever-pressing matter of university funding. Zeleza advises university leaders to place a greater focus on seeking funding from African philanthropic organisations and high net-worth individuals.

“The data indicates that higher education is not a priority for giving among this group,” he says. This is quite contrary to experience in other parts of the world and among leading universities, such as Harvard and Princeton.

“So, the challenge for African universities as part of their mission of engaging society is to approach and cultivate these individuals in a strategic way.”

Zeleza also embraces the benefits that technology may bring to higher education, although, he says, “universities should avoid adopting a technologist kind of viewpoint in which technology is viewed as a thing and an end in itself”.

“The issue has to be the extent to which universities are enhancing their value proposition in terms of deploying and developing new technologies in support of digital learning, research and scholarship, and public service and engagement.”

In this regard, he advises that “universities must ensure that students are equipped with the appropriate digital skills, [which are] essential to employability”.

“There is also a need to equip students with information literacy so that they can navigate the huge and ever-increasing amount of information that is available, mostly online.”

The new technologies can further be deployed to facilitate competency-based educational practices, personalising learning, and allowing individual students to move at their own pace, Zeleza says.

Meanwhile, the more democratic access to knowledge facilitated by online technology is leading to new pedagogic approaches, he argues, and a change in the role of teaching professionals. “Teachers, lecturers and professors are no longer the fount of all knowledge.

“Increasingly, the teacher’s role is to equip the students with the ability to engage in critical enquiry and critical discourse. Thus, the lecturing method is giving way to a more interactive co-learning process – a kind of coaching relationship.”

Alongside this, Zeleza says, a new curriculum must be developed that can take account of technological development, including through the continuing establishment of new science degree courses but also through promoting a complementary role for some of the arts and humanities.

“The 4IR is not simply about technology in isolation, but also about how it is integrated with, contributes to, and is transformed by creativity,” he says.

“In this regard, I prefer the acronym STEAM, which includes an “A” for arts, to the acronym STEM, which refers only to science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”

Creating a new African ‘library’

On the question of the role of indigenous knowledge in the African university, Zeleza envisages an increasingly sophisticated approach to indigenous and other systems of knowledge or ‘libraries’ as Congolese French philosopher and historian Valentin-Yves Mudimbe termed them.

“The tendency is to freeze the notion of indigenous knowledge to an imaginary point in our collective history … and, typically, this reference point is that of pre-contact knowledge, meaning before contact with Europe and colonialism,” he says.

However, he explains, this gives rise to a “banal” definition of African knowledge as an oral formation that stands in opposition to written European or colonial knowledge.

There are at least three streams in Africa’s ancient knowledges, which include the Christian library, the Islamic library, and the oral one, “for lack of a better term”. Zeleza argues that African academics and intellectuals need to claim these libraries which have co-existed for more than a millennium on the continent.

The real problem, however, is “the overwhelming nature of the colonial library in terms of its impacts on our political and intellectual economies”, he says.

“We have become so consumed – and rightly so, to some extent – by the colonial library that we have forgotten these other libraries.”

In response, a key mission for the African academy is to create “a new library out of the constellation of the continent’s diverse libraries,” he says, “so that we can provincialise, deconstruct and decolonise formerly centric knowledges and in their place create empowering knowledges that do not limit us to a formulation of our identities that, itself, is part of the Eurocentric episteme”.

This article is based on an interview conducted by Professor Crain Soudien for the ‘The Imprint of Education’ project, which is being implemented by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), South Africa, in partnership with the Mastercard Foundation. This project, which includes a series of critical engagements with experienced scholars and thought leaders on their reimaginings of higher education in Africa, investigates current and future challenges facing the sector, including best practices and innovations. The transcript has been edited for length and focus by Mark Paterson and Thierry M Luescher and the full interview will be available on the HSRC’s website.

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Ideas

Heckling: Political Fine Art or Mere Intolerance?

Tradition gives the politician the power to talk down to the public. But where is the citizens’ voice and platform to register their disapproval and displeasure? Is heckling inherently wrong?

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Heckling: Political Fine Art or Mere Intolerance?
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Hakuna! Ongee! Tawe! Gũtirĩ!

The human being is a heckler. It doesn’t matter whether he’s a polished and refined bureaucrat or a rusty hawker in some dark and desolate alley along River Road. The accountant, when home from work and in front of his 40-inch TV, will still heckle and chuckle when he hears a disagreeable comment from a politician. The prize goes to the hawker though, who will attend a meeting and courageously make his feelings known.

The question as to whether heckling is right or wrong falls within the realms of nature. And nature, you’d agree, is complex. Questions of nature have no simple or simplistic answers. Nature scorns soundbites and clichés. And nature is not just about majestic forests, clothed in death-like stillness—or the power and poise of lions as their roar echoes and re-echoes across the rugged expanse of the Mara.

Finally, nature is not just about atoms and electrons.

When correctly comprehended, nature encompasses the metaphysical. It deals with ideas and ideals as well as values and virtues. In antiquity and during the classical periods, natural philosophy was a big scholarly tent under which men studied astronomy and beauty, physics and ethics—all side by side.

This is to show that to study heckling—is to study ethics—and to study nature.

In less than six months, Kenyans are going to the polls for an election that will usher in a transition. Politicians have many tools and avenues to pass their message across to the populace: a few refined town hall-like meetings, a dash of carefully worded social media messaging through platforms like Twitter and Facebook, and live TV interviews, where politicians and their apparatchiks smash phones and bang tables to emphasize their arguments.

Yet the truth is that a political rally remains the theatre of action and the real marketplace of political discourse. In a typical political rally, tradition gives the politician the power and prestige to talk down to the public. They clap and chant and then go home. The (un)settled opinion is that if a citizen does not agree with a politician or with his message, he should just stay away. Heckling, they are told, is immoral, uncouth, even criminal.

Fair enough.

However, where is the citizens’ voice and platform to register their disapproval and displeasure? Is heckling inherently and invariably wrong? Are there situations when heckling should be tolerated, even encouraged? What is the place of heckling in a free and democratic society? How does the law on heckling intersect and overlap with issues to do with free speech?

To understand anything, it’s important to travel back in time to its roots and origins. Before the 18th century, the word “heckling” as we now understand it meant an entirely different thing. A heckler was then a person using a tool called a heckle to comb and refine flax, or in some cases, hemp. Heckling involved drawing out the unwanted fibres from the flax so that it would be clean enough to be spun. A heckler therefore was an industrious worker, who, I should imagine, was dignified and respected.

It was not a coincidence that the Scottish town of Dundee, which was home to many heckler-workers, would emerge as the place where heckling was refined and transformed to become the proto-type of the heckling that we now relate to. Heckler-workers would choose one from amongst themselves to read the day’s news to the whole group. In response to politicians’ reported speeches that they deemed absurd or ridiculous, the rest of the heckler-workers would taunt and tease, scorn and sneer.

A heckler was then a person using a tool called a heckle to comb and refine flax, or in some cases, hemp.

In Scotland, even when the meaning changed with the times, it did not at first involve derisive catcalls, loud jeers, or disruptive boos. Instead, heckling referred to the intense questioning of politicians by the public. The Scottish story tells us that heckling is a legitimate tool that has the potential to improve the democratic tone and texture of a republic. In many other countries, heckling has been a successful device both as a political thermostat (to influence public opinion or government policy) and political thermometer (to reflect public opinion or government policy). Public speeches about the Vietnam war, nuclear weapons, clean fuel, apartheid, and civil rights have, for the same intent, involved some heckling-punctuated protests. This history is important. It shows us that heckling was a socio-political device invented by struggling industrial workers—the class we would call hustlers in Kenya’s current political jargon. Even more curious and exciting is the fact that, as a political device and innovation, it evolved in Scotland, the birthplace of John Stuart Mill, the foremost patriarch and prophet of civil liberty including free speech.

Many political leaders have since been heckled, even those upon whose graves history has put gorgeous wreaths of beautiful flowers. Nelson Mandela was heckled by Muslim adherents in 2001, when he paid a visit to the Grey Street Mosque in Durban, Kwazulu-Natal, because of his stand on the war on terror and the American military campaign in Afghanistan.

In Kenya, the most enduring story of heckling was President Jomo Kenyatta’s visit to Kisumu in 1969 where he was met with shouts of “Ndume, Ndume”—the approving chants directed to elevate his then foremost political nemesis Jaramogi. When Kenyatta rose to speak, his unprintable expletives provoked the crowd. Chaos ensued. Police started firing randomly. Official government records put the death toll at 11.

Without being insensitive to the victims of this incident, this figure, in the weighing scale of fatalities—does not answer to the subsequent description of a massacre. Prof. Macharia Munene, in his book Historical Reflections on Kenya, alleges that the term Kisumu massacre evolved due to the push by historians such as William Ochieng and Bethwell Ogot. But that’s a story for another day.

Many political leaders have since been heckled, even those upon whose graves history has put gorgeous wreaths of beautiful flowers.

As we can see, the cost of heckling was paid in blood and tears. Most recently, thanks to the expanding democratic space, heckling is increasingly tolerated. While on the campaign trail recently, Raila was heckled some places in Meru. William Ruto has also been heckled in parts of the former Western Province.

There are convincing arguments against heckling. One very seductive argument is that heckling limits free speech.

The gold standard for free speech—in Western thought and civilization—is Mill’s Liberty. In this Tour de Force, the student of politics will find perhaps the most elegant arguments in favour of free speech ever penned. Listen to this:

If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.

In issues to do with free speech, Mill argues, numbers mean nothing. The opinion and voice of a solitary man is equal to the voice and opinion of an impressive assembly.

When you silence a person, the cost to knowledge and social progress can be huge. And the person who “loses” is not just the person silenced. The loss is for the whole society, as Mill eloquently posits:

The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error. [Emphasis mine.]

Yet in the chaotic sphere of heckling, there’s a tension and struggle between the free speech of the speaker and the free speech of the heckler. If you give one the benefit of an uninterrupted speech, you shut down and deny the other. It almost looks like a zero-sum game. You might argue that the meeting has been convened by the politician and therefore is technically the politician’s meeting, and that he should hold the exclusive keys of free speech.

This was William Ruto’s argument when he lost his cool in the face of sustained heckling during a Laikipia tour.

Granted, we are wont to view the heckler as the aggressor who wants to take a place belonging to someone else. That, moreover, the people who attend a rally or some other public meeting come purposefully to listen to the speaker and not the heckler.

Well, not quite.

In the Heckler’s Promise, Lee Campbell, argues in his paper that the heckler wants neither to be the official speaker nor silent mute. And that without the heckler, public speaking is not democratic as should answer to the meaning of participative democracy. Campbell also argues that if we muzzle the heckler, there’s no genuine encounter between the politician and the citizen.

Moreover, I tend to view heckling as social release—some form of catharsis—that is absolutely necessary in a living and breathing democracy. For how do you muzzle a citizen and subdue him with fake batons of decency and decorum—when he comes to listen to a member of parliament who has squandered the constituency’s allocations on girlfriends—by telling him to listen passively or to request for an impossible chance to speak? Or how can anyone really fault the crowd for heckling President Moi at the burial of Robert Ouko?

Yet in the chaotic sphere of heckling, there’s a tension and struggle between the free speech of the speaker and the free speech of the heckler.

You can say that he can register his disapproval through the ballot. And therein lies the problem. The politician has a vote, a voice, and a platform. Yet the voter only has the vote. And we’re not talking about legislation—which the citizen delegates to his legislator—according to the canons of representative democracy. Here, we’re talking about public discourse and/or expression.

You can also argue that the citizen can convene his own meeting. However, who knows him? If he calls a meeting, who will attend?

If we fully grasp the power dynamics between Prince and Pauper, to borrow the title of Mark Twain’s popular novel, then perhaps the heckler should be congratulated—not criticized.

Yet, the truth is that the prince and the pauper are not equal and never will be. Adam Smith, the celebrated classical economist and moral philosopher, even argues that social inequality is good for society. Without it, there cannot be any meaningful progress. Egalitarianism is utopia.

So, we should perhaps admit that a citizen will not have the voice and the platform like the politician. Yet even if the platform is the politician’s, it is wholly against nature to be passive like a pebble; even a stone causes ripples when it is thrown into water.

There can be a compromise: We don’t have absolute rights—even when it comes to the right of free speech or expression. So long as the speaker’s right to speak is not drowned out and completely halted, you have not interfered with his right to free speech. If you heckle him spontaneously or at intervals that do not make speech impossible, you may have just achieved the democratic ideal that the majority should decide—and the minority be heard. This is as it applies to the voice, separate to the vote.

So the point is: you should not heckle with the intention of disrupting—but only to register your displeasure. Otherwise, you’re limiting the speaker’s rights and the rights of others—who came to listen to what the speaker had to say. As celebrated jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes would memorably aver, “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.”

Surprisingly, Kenyans have been practicing this kind of non-disruptive heckling as can be seen from video clips of Ruto’s and Raila’s meetings.

But some might still argue that it’s right to disrupt a meeting. Of course that’s correct—even if it’s illegal! This is because something can be legal but patently unjust and unconscionable. That is the field and sphere of civil disobedience in the tradition of such figures as Henry David Thoreau, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mahatma Gandhi. Here’s what Martin Luther King Jr. said:

An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.

In any case, ideas are like commodities. For instance, if you found someone selling heroin to children, and if you had the strength, would you leave him right there, and go to report the matter to the police? You’d first disrupt the sale. It’s the right thing to do.

By that analogy, if someone is selling poisonous and dangerous ideas, you’d be duty bound to disrupt him or her by any means including heckling. The fundamental element of civil disobedience is that disruption must be civil.

Of course, violence and stone-throwing are acts beyond the pale and which the law and society should condemn.

While heckling is to a large extent acceptable, it can be used by political opponents to disadvantage rivals in the political marketplace. That’s the reason organized heckling is suspicious. However, organized hecklings are not created equal. For instance, I don’t believe that voters should not organize to heckle a politician.

“The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.”

Politicians meet all the time to plan what they’ll tell us. This is organization. There’s nothing wrong if the people organize on how they’ll register their displeasure—provided they do this by themselves. The organized heckling that can’t pass muster is the one where a politician uses money to plan and heckle a rival’s meeting. This is corruption of political discourse which makes the political marketplace artificially un-even.

This treatise would not be complete without mentioning one other important function of heckling in a free and democratic society. Heckling tests the emotional intelligence and wit of a politician. It’s a bad sign for a democracy if a politician is easily rattled by hecklers.

The famous British parliamentarian John Wilkes was on the campaign trail when he met a heckler. This is how it went.

Heckler: Vote for you? I’d sooner vote for the devil.

John Wilkes: What if your friend is not vying?

Everyone, I can imagine, burst into uproarious laughter, while approving Wilkes witty response.

This is one area Deputy President William Ruto should probably work on.

Heckling can be fun, especially if it’s spontaneous. It can actually qualify as an artful form of expressing dissent.

So go and heckle—but don’t disrupt.

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Fourth Industrial Revolution: Innovation or New Phase of Imperialism?

Africans must enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution in a manner that upholds our human dignity, our liberty as communities and individuals, and our human agency.

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Fourth Industrial Revolution: Innovation or New Phase of Imperialism?
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“Welcome to tomorrow!” and “Tomorrow is already here!” are popular phrases often used in the context of the so-called Fourth Industrial revolution (“4IR”). Thus at the Sight Tech global Conference held on 2nd and 3rd December 2020, one of the plenary sessions was titled “Our AI future is already here”. In Profit and Prejudice: The Luddites of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Paul Donovan summarises the past three industrial revolutions as (1) steam power, (2) electric power, and (3) computer power. Nicholas Johnson and Brendan Markey-Towler speak of the four revolutions as the industrial revolution, the technological revolution, the digital revolution, and the fourth industrial revolution. They go on to note that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is the current period of economic transition since the mid-2000s, characterized by a fusion of new digital technologies, rooted in advances from the Digital Revolution, with technological applications in the physical and biological domains. Similarly, Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, formerly the European Management Forum, observes that the fourth industrial revolution is characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres.

Nancy W. GLEASON cites MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee as referring to 4IR as the Second Machine Age (“2MA”). According to them, while the first machine age was about the automation of manual labour and physical strength, the 2MA technological progress in digital hardware, software and networks is about the automation of knowledge. At the core of the automation of knowledge is artificial intelligence (AI). Johnson and Markey-Towler explain: “Artificial intelligence, especially when endowed with machine learning algorithms, is a technology which seeks to mimic the functioning of the human mind, and which can therefore mimic human action guided by a process that mimics human thought.” Johnson and Markey-Towler further observe that artificial intelligence has greatly enhanced the use of robots:

…, the 4IR moves the goalposts from automation to smartization, whereby intelligently programmed software and robots are able to collect new data during the regular course of their operation, share it with other approved devices on the network, analyse the data, and use the conclusions to update their course of action. The 4IR took “dumb” autonomous machines and made them “smart.” This step was essential to the development of technological marvels such as self-driving cars and trucks and next-generation industrial robotics.

During the December 2020 Sight Tech Global Conference which I referred to at the beginning of this article, Kai-Fu Lee, one of the world’s top scientists and top investors in the field of artificial intelligence and author of AI Superpowers: China Silicon Valley and the New World Order, observed that the current generation’s breakthrough in a type of AI called neural nets, sometimes referred to as deep learning, has enabled remarkable advances in areas such as computer vision and natural language processing. He went on to state that today’s AI capabilities are so great in this raw form that what is needed now are the engineers, and, most importantly, the data to make the most of all the possibilities. He explained:

… computers … can see and hear at the same level as people now. So with speech recognition for machine translation and for object recognition, AI is now at about the same level as humans. And AI is improving rapidly, based on its ability to take a huge amount of data whether it’s spoken language or recorded videos to really train itself to do better and better. So over time, it will be a better see-er and hear-er than humans.” Referring to what he calls the third wave of artificial intelligence as perception AI, Lee spoke of “… extending and expanding this power throughout our lived environment, digitizing the world around us through the proliferation of sensors and smart devices. These devices are turning our physical world into digital data that can be analyzed and optimized by deep learning algorithms.

Nevertheless, Donovan notes that the phrase “industrial revolution” entered common usage long after the first industrial revolution had begun. He explains that Karl Marx’s collaborator on The Communist Manifesto, Frederick Engels, used the phrase in German in the 1840s, and the phrase was first used in English by Arnold Toynbee in 1882. This points to the fact that human beings often name something quite a while after they have experienced it, and the same has been true of 4IR, although we may have named it earlier than the first three because we are now more used to the idea of industrial revolutions than those who went before us were.

Klaus Schwab listed emerging 4IR technology breakthroughs in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage and quantum computing among the things that would drastically change our lives. Indeed, the lives of the peoples of Africa are already being touched by 4IR in ways that many of them are yet to perceive—their smart phones, with their “Location” function on, are beaming data about their movements to networks, and the data are then sold to high-tech transport companies desperate for information about traffic flow in cities; many of them unwittingly allow phone apps to access their microphones and cameras, with the real possibility of their conversations and actions being monitored; their emails and social media accounts are being monitored for information about them that is sold to marketers, advertisers and politicians who use it for “targeted messaging”; their faces are increasingly being scanned by cameras connected to face-recognition software ostensibly to enhance security, but with the real possibility of surveillance for purposes unknown to them.

Human beings often name something quite a while after they have experienced it

What is likely to be more alarming to many, however, is the fact that the combination of artificial intelligence and robotics supported by high-speed online connectivity is threatening to render jobless in a few years’ time those without requisite new skills.

In 2021, Rob Floyd informed us that the African Centre for Economic Transformation (ACET), working with other institutional partners and nearly 40 data scientists and machine learning experts from around the globe, had completed the continent’s first “Artificial Intelligence Challenge”, ostensibly to help predict what infrastructure Africa will need in the future. According to Floyd, the exercise sought to identify machine learning tools and approaches that can inform policy decisions. The data scientists created models and designed methodologies that could help determine what infrastructure to build, where to build it, and what factors would have long-term economic impacts on the continent.

The fourth industrial revolution perpetuating western imperialism

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, imperialism is “the policy, practice, or advocacy of extending the power and dominion of a nation especially by direct territorial acquisitions or by gaining indirect control over the political or economic life of other areas.” The peoples of Africa, Asia, the Americas, Australia and New Zealand first bore the brunt of Western imperialism in the form of colonialism. In The Invention of Africa, the Congolese philosopher V.Y. Mudimbe notes that “colonialism and colonization basically mean ‘organization’, ‘arrangement’. The two words derive from the Latin word colere, meaning to cultivate or to design.” He goes on to point out that the colonists (those settling a region), as well as the colonialists (those exploiting a territory by dominating a local majority) have all tended to organize and transform non-European areas into fundamentally European constructs.

Thus the politics, economics and systems of knowledge production in colonised territories were designed to imitate those of their Western colonisers. At independence in the late 1950s and early 1960s, classical colonialism in Africa was replaced by neo-colonialism. Kwame Nkrumah, in the Introduction to his Neo-Colonialism, the Last Stage of imperialism, wrote: “THE neo-colonialism of today represents imperialism in its final and perhaps its most dangerous stage. …. The essence of neo-colonialism is that the State which is subject to it is, in theory, independent and has all the outward trappings of international sovereignty. In reality its economic system and thus its political policy is directed from outside.”

In a chapter in The Disruptive Fourth Industrial Revolution: Technology, Society and Beyond, Rashied and Bhamjee observe that industrialisation in 4IR could easily continue along the path of coloniality, in which the wealthy countries of the Northern hemisphere exploit the resources of countries in the South, but that it could also result in some of the wealthier countries of the Global South exploiting their poorer counterparts. During the Third Industrial Revolution, the inequality between the wealthy countries in the North and the poor ones in the South was regularly referred to as “the digital divide” — a divide that is already finding its way into 4IR. Thus as Donovan observes, there are many people who cannot afford a smart phone and a data plan to enjoy the benefits of 4IR, so that “The democratisation of communication only applies to those above a certain income level.”

Indeed, the Digital Economy Report 2019, released by the UN Conference on Trade and Development, highlighted the disproportionate concentration of the digital economy in the United States and China, with the rest of the world trailing considerably, especially countries in Africa and Latin America. According to the Report, the United States and China accounted for 90 per cent of the market capitalization value of the world’s 70 largest digital platforms, over 75 per cent of the cloud computing market, 75 per cent of all patents related to blockchain technology, and 50 per cent of global spending on the Internet of Things.

“The democratisation of communication only applies to those above a certain income level.”

The report predicted that under current regulations and policies, this trajectory was likely to continue, contributing to increasing inequality. Yet, perhaps even more disturbing, is the digital divide right inside each of our countries in Africa, where the middle class enjoys virtually all the benefits of 4IR technologies that their counterparts in the affluent West and East enjoy, while the vast majority of their compatriots still grapple with lack of basic amenities such as access to piped water and electric power so that for them the issue of entering the digital world does not even arise. This latter digital divide significantly contributes to the perpetuation of the neo-colonial structures of domination for the benefit of the West and East.

Furthermore, in the edited volume The Fourth Industrial Revolution and Its Impact on Ethics, Geneviève Tanguay notes that disregard for factors such as cultural identity and political convictions is often reflected in the very design of 4IR products themselves. For example, observes Tanguay, machine learning algorithms, although designed to help in problem-solving and decision-making, are vulnerable to biases and errors arising either from their creators or from the datasets used to train the systems themselves. Tanguay goes on to write that Amazon’s time- and resource-intensive effort to build an Artificial Intelligence (AI) recruitment tool was shot through with bias against women: engineers reportedly attributed this bias to the AI combing through CVs submitted to the company over a 10-year period, most of which were submitted by men.

Donovan points out that consumers can now boycott companies that do not agree with their political positions: apps even suggest alternative products with better scores. However, he goes on to caution that, “With an app, the opinion that works out the details is someone else’s opinion. …. If the shopper has different priorities to the app designer, they may spend in areas they do not actually support.” In addition, observes Donovan, although it is often claimed that the communication technologies have democratized communication, “Algorithms give preference to some social-media users. They also will censor others. Government censorship was commonplace 300 years ago. The private-sector equivalent is the demonetisation, downgrading or banning of published content.” Such censorship from the so-called big tech has escalated in the era of COVID-19, ostensibly in a bid to fight the virus through scientifically-based information.

Disregard for factors such as cultural identity and political convictions is often reflected in the very design of 4IR products themselves.

Moreover, Western cultures are putting non-Western cultures under great pressure to allow themselves to be assimilated in the global (read “largely Western”) cultural pool on the false presumption that they are inferior to Western cultures. Thus in a chapter in African Values, Ethics, and Technology, Maleselo John Lamola points out that as the peoples of Africa use 4IR technologies designed with a Western cultural bias, they are negatively affected at a fundamental level:

The culturally disadvantaged user is … simultaneously mesmerised and alienated by an object that imposes itself as instrumental for the efficiencies of her life; during the same experience she must align her way of doing things to the intricacies of the operation of this device or machine, as well as to the social role it is cast to serve in her life.

A crucial aspect of human welfare is personal liberty, entailing rights such as those of free association, movement, expression and privacy. Yet 4IR is eroding these very liberties through surveillance: smart phones now easily “hear” and “see” much more than their users intend or know. Besides, governments are consolidating various databases (such as those on health insurance, births and deaths, voters’ lists, and criminal records) into single super-databases, so that at the click of a button those with access can view a citizen’s information in astoundingly fine details that can be used against him or her. Thus in the run-up to the 2020 US elections, some US citizens wrote a parody of the famous American civil war-period song “His Truth Goes Marching On”, part of which stated:

Our right to privacy is gone, devices are the spies.

For government surveillance those are now the ears and eyes.

They use the corporate data, no subpoenas, no surprise,

And still we don’t catch on.

All this calls to mind George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, in which the single party, embodied by the mythical “Big Brother”, deploys 4IR-type technologies to monitor not only the people’s actions, but also their thoughts. The “inner party” consists of an elite which wields power by getting the “outer party” members to do their bidding. The party has a “thought police” which deploys all manner of 4IR type technologies to keep tabs on members of the outer party, including “telescreens” in homes and in public places that “listen to” and “see” all that the citizens say and do round the clock. The thought police are even able to read the thoughts of the members of the “outer party” and unleash punishments on them for any dissenting ideas. The “proles” (short for “proletariat”) are the illiterate masses, deeply despised by both inner and outer party members, and hardly have any interaction with the political process.

Furthermore, the party constantly re-writes history to suit its immediate purposes, fabricates narratives about consistent and abundant economic growth, about a mythical enemy of the state called Goldstein, and about never-ending war with this or that foreign power. It is working on a language called “Newspeak” to totally replace “Oldspeak” (English as we now know it, with a view to reducing the number of vocabulary in the language in order to eventually make it impossible for anyone to entertain or express critical thoughts against the regime. The party’s three slogans are: War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength.

Indeed, 4IR technologies now make a global dictatorship a much more conceivable possibility than it was for the first readers of 1984.

Kalundi Serumaga has illustrated how Africa’s land is “The Final Frontier of Global Capital”. This corroborates Mordecai Ogada’s assertion that “Conservation interests have built a cauldron into which the extremely wealthy are pouring startling amounts of money to subvert systems, grab lands, and plunder resources.” Yet the domination of Africa’s land that global capital seeks to achieve is being greatly aided by 4IR technologies that not only enhance the digitization of land records, but also detailed surveillance and high-tech warfare using 4IR-driven devices such as drones.

Which way forward?

We in Africa ought to urgently clarify our moral values, and based on them, formulate clear guidelines to restrain developers and marketers of 4IR technologies, serving the same old imperialists and some new ones, from dehumanising our people by manipulatively imposing technological innovations on them. Thus we ought to deeply reflect on the social visions of our forerunners such as that of Pixley ka Isaka Seme in his celebrated 1906 Columbia University speech titled “The Regeneration of Africa”. Seme spoke of a regenerated African civilization whose most essential departure “is that it shall be thoroughly spiritual and humanistic — indeed a regeneration moral and eternal.” As Lamola explains, for Seme, “the surrender of human agency to machines is … not fathomed. His was a novel conception of the possibility of the symbiosis of scientific progress with human spirituality.” Thus in my recent journal article on “The Fourth Industrial Revolution”, I proposed four normative considerations that, in my view, ought to guide the initiatives of the peoples of Africa in their deployment of 4IR technologies, namely, inclusiveness to meet the needs of all human beings, affordability to bridge the digital divide, respect for the right to cultural identity to guard against cultural imperialism, and ethical orientation as the over-arching guide to building a truly human society.

The domination of Africa’s land that global capital seeks to achieve is being greatly aided by 4IR technologies.

In sum, as we the peoples of Africa enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we ought to do so in a manner that upholds our human dignity, our liberty as communities and individuals, and, as a result, our human agency. This will entail a conscious and consistent repudiation of Eurocentrism in the realm of technology in line with Frantz Fanon’s admonition in the final chapter of his The Wretched of the Earth, A book he diligently worked to complete during the last ten months of his life:

If we want to turn Africa into a new Europe …, then let us leave the destiny of our countries to Europeans. They will know how to do it better than the most gifted among us.

But if we want humanity to advance a step further, if we want to bring it up to a different level than that which Europe has shown it, then we must invent and we must make discoveries.

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