Analysis & Opinions - New Scientist
Mandela's Unsung Legacy of Science in Africa
Nelson Mandela died yesterday at the age of 95. He knew well the importance of science and technology institutes for Africa's full liberation
For much of the world Nelson Mandela was the icon of the age of modern liberation that started with Mahatma Gandhi and reached its height with South Africa's first democratic elections in 1994.
What is less well known is that the struggle for political freedom was closely associated with the desire to develop scientific and technological capacity.
Apartheid did not just separate races. Probably the most destructive of its legacies was to restrict non-whites from getting technical training. What is more, this exclusion was not unique to South Africa but part of a wider political culture that defined Africa as a region with low levels of technological expertise.
Mandela understood that exclusion from education was a major limiting factor to development. He said education was "the most powerful weapon with which you can change the world".
Motivated by this concern, Mandela lent his name to the creation of a new generation of African Institutes of Science and Technology, seen as the beginning of a new generation of African research universities. Two have already been established, in Tanzania and Nigeria, and a third is planned in Burkina Faso.
The institutes were also inspired by the view that Africa had failed to fully utilise its abundant natural resources because it lacked human capital, scientific knowledge, skills and infrastructure.
Teaching Meets Research
The creation of the institutes represents a new phase in Africa's continuing struggle for economic freedom. The continent continues to play a peripheral role in the global economy and its contributions to science and technology remain marginal.
A key reason for this is that most African countries inherited an educational legacy that separated research from higher education. Research is carried out in institutes that do not have teaching mandates, while universities educate students without having a strong research foundation.
The consequence of this separation is twofold. First, the outputs of research institutes do not benefit from the circulation of students, who elsewhere act as agents of technology transfer. Second, without a strong research base universities cannot be counted on to teach students the latest findings. The new institutes should start to address this problem.
Even so, Africa's educational challenges remain monumental, and the focus on building science and technology at the university level addresses only a small part of the problem. The institutes will need to be part of an educational agenda that starts with children. As Mandela said: "There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children."
Mandela will be remembered as one of the greatest leaders of all time. One of the best ways to live up to his loftiest aspirations for Africa is to give future generations science and technology education that gives them the skills to expand their economic opportunity.
The next age of liberation will involve enabling Africa to play its rightful role in the global knowledge economy. Many battles lie ahead, but we can draw inspiration from Mandela's moral and political courage. In his own words: "It always looks impossible until it is done."
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