real challenge is in grounding science and technology in lived life,
in the capacity for our society to stimulate the imaginations of
its peoples through voices that can go beyond the giving of testimony,
towards creating new thoughts and new worlds.
Njabulo Ndebele (1998)
I have always been interested in the role that imagination plays
in creating reality - the power of thought and voice in shaping
worlds. Science fiction movies are a case in point. Decades ago
the writers of science fiction movies created worlds where communication
was instant, where characters could communicate across galaxies
via videophone and various other wireless technologies.
Those times are now here. For example, writers no longer need to
sweat over typewriters or rely on the mailman to take days or weeks
to deliver manuscripts, which must be edited and returned for rewriting,
and so on ... Thanks to the digital age, documents zip back and
forth with (relative) ease, allowing for more time spent on content
and creativity and less on logistics. Technology is indeed providing
us with the tools to change our environments.
What strikes me about the technology tools we use today - from
motor cars to computers - is that very few of these are made in
Africa, and so they are generally priced out of the range of many
Africans. Thinking about this technology gap or divide, it seems
implausible to me that the entire African continent is not able
to produce scientists who can create affordable and appropriate
technologies that can better the lives of Africans and others fighting
poverty and disease. Why do Africans seem to be innovation shy?
Where are the books, TV programmes and movies on brilliant African
scientists, men and women who have contributed to humanity's progress?
In music, the records are there. Africans have lobbied and healed
the world with beautiful music. South Africa's Makeba, Gwangwa,
Rathebe, Masekela, Molelekwa, Bosman, the many Khumalos, and the
funky Muffins are proof that in music we have innovated and created.
We remember that music, drama and dance played a role in bringing
down apartheid's infested edifice. And that our many art forms continue
to resist, voice, record and inspire. Future artists know they stand
on the shoulders of giants. Simphiwe Dana, Letlake-Nkosi and loudrastress
know to continue the works of their forbears.
Back to science. I scratch my head trying to think of brilliant
But my mind again wanders to the arts, more specifically, the literary
arts. Nadine Gordimer, JM Coetzee and Wole Soyinka won Nobel Prizes.
And legendary Ntate Es'kia Mphahlele was nominated. Many have followed
in Achebe's giant leaps. Head, Mda, Mattera, Tladi, Mhlophe, Magona,
Ousmane, Ba, Biko, El Saadawi, Sepamla, Serote, Wa Thiongo, Ndebele,
Wicomb, Dangarembga, Marechera, Duiker, Andersson, Mpe, Magogodi,
Mashile, Molope, Motsei and many others have blazed paths so we
can know that being black and female is not a disease that stops
one from writing or from thinking. Their ideas and philosophies,
meticulously put down in fact and fiction, tell us of our struggles
to be free from multiple shackles. Some wrote and continue to write
under extremely difficult conditions, under governments determined
to stop freedoms. They urge us not to compromise on peace and love,
by putting down words to remind us of people, worlds and values
where we don't worship in dollars. As the widening gap between the
haves and the have-nots threatens to swallow us all, they write
that stealing from the poor to overfeed the rich is immoral.
In facing the widening material gap, Njabulo Ndebele's challenge
that writers should engage with the world of science and technology
and imagine the ways in which these tools can change worlds is pertinent.
We need many more films, books, magazines, theatre pieces, radio,
TV and net programmes about the glories of ancient sciences in Mapungubwe,
Thulamela and Egypt, that will remind us that we have always had
the skills and creativity to shape iron into sophisticated implements.
We have for centuries traded in ornaments made from rich minerals.
This information was kept secret by the colonial and apartheid states,
which did not want us to remember that we always have shared, and
still can share, with the world our scientific and artistic knowledge.
(The University of Pretoria kept secret their excavations of Mapungubwe
because the site contradicted apartheid history's assertion that
the South of Africa was uninhabited before the seventeenth century.)
Fortunately, the wonder that is Egypt's pyramids escaped wars and
dynamite and are today proof of Africa's mathematics and ancient
In excavating stories about Africa's ancient arts and sciences,
we can better understand how we came to owe, and continue to owe,
billions to the North. Our understanding should inform our efforts
to transcend present imbalances.
Africa's scientific successes are not limited to our past. I recently
found out that the Kreepy Krauly, that brilliant invention that
keeps pools the world over sparkling, was invented in 1974 in South
Africa by hydraulics engineer Ferdinand Chauvier. And of course
we have Afronaut Mark Shuttleworth charging across galaxies in his
quest to bridge the digital divide, using home-grown, open source
software that will not cost us an arm and a leg to buy in dollars
Thebe Medupe's film Cosmic Africa is a step in the right
direction. Now we know that Africans have for centuries had sophisticated
knowledge about the stars and planets around us.
I'm sure there are many more African scientists and mathematicians,
men and women, whose stories can inspire, if preserved in popular
memory through multiple art forms. The stories of scientists such
as Prof Malegapuru Makgoba, the late industrial chemist Manakana
Hosea Mabogoana, nuclear physicists Prof Alfred Msezana and Prof
Reginald Boleu, mathematician Dr Mammokgethi Sikati and many others
must be generously passed around. This rich store of knowledge will
feed the imaginations of future artists and scientists who will
continue to create, innovate and change worlds.
This paper has benefited from discussions with N Mabaso and FD Mazibuko.
Ndebele, N. 1998. "Memory, metaphor and the triumph of narrative".
In Negotiating the past: the making of memory in South Africa.
Eds Nutall and Coetzee. Cape Town: Oxford University Press.