Our wisdom is a seedbed for a new era of hope

November 12, 2004

Africa has had great universities. Higher education on our continent stretches back to Ancient Egypt, where the temples imparted knowledge not only to Africans, but also to many of those who were to play leading roles in the civilisation of Ancient Greece.

Later centres of learning flourished in Aksum, Nubia, Timbuktu and beyond. Many of us also recall the vibrant intellectual life in Dar es Salaam, Makerere, Nairobi, Ibadan, Fourah Bay and elsewhere in the Sixties and Seventies.

But it is a matter of sadness that Africa was unable to sustain the intellectual ferment that was present during the period of decolonisation.

It seems as if the African university has lost its spirit and soul in the past two decades or so. Where it once engaged the anticolonial project with zest, it now strives to have that zest rekindled in response to an external imperative immediately around it, but from which it remains distant.

The soul of the African university died, in part, with the decline of the modern postcolonial African state.

One country after another fell under military rule and other forms of unrepresentative government, severely limiting the capacity of Africa to take advantage of the genius of its peoples.

For this reason, we should reflect on recent democratic developments on the continent and see whether we can begin, once more, to deploy the collective wisdom and capacity of our people for the development of our countries.

Our entire continent remains at risk until the African university, in the context of a continental reawakening, regains its soul.

The new Africa can only be a product of the creative interface between the public, private and civic sector domains. At the centre of this interface is education.

If the education system, particularly at its higher levels, is to supply society with citizens of vision and commitment, it must win and enjoy the respect of the whole of society and must be accessible to all.

In this context, a university should not be an enclave or an ivory tower whose curricula have little relation to the society in which it operates.

At the same time, education must be accorded recognition as a space for unfettered intellectual inquiry. It must be trusted for its critical objectivity, its quality and for its capacity for public accountability.

Few would dispute the fact that universities are better able to serve society when they function with a great deal of self-regulation within a public accountability framework. And, of course, success in self-regulation will depend on building and enhancing capacities in internal management and governance.

We trust that the new partnerships, within the region, continent and the Commonwealth, will continue to contribute significantly to the enhancement of these capacities and create the conditions that will enable Africa's universities to become integrated into the international networks that are so critical to success in the knowledge economies in which we now live.

The spirit of the African university is more than the sum of its outreach projects. It includes fully acknowledging and restoring dignity to the activities of teaching, learning and the search for new knowledge; and recognising the capacity of the human intellect to liberate through questioning and disputation.

It includes finding cures for diseases that have depopulated our continent for centuries; and discovering inventive and sustainable ways of ending poverty through successful entrepreneurship. It also means making sure that in the design of our history syllabuses, African history is not confined to the beginning and end of colonialism.

This spirit should stimulate our imaginations and our sense of identity through the literary, visual and performing arts; allow for the free movement of teachers, researchers and students across the continent; and create differentiated systems of higher education to meet Africa's diverse educational needs.

Clearly, it includes restoring trust to academic leadership that sees a new kind of learning, and teaching that fosters active citizens inspired by a healthy African pride, committed to the national development effort, social transformation and imbued with a commitment to global responsibility at the heart of university education.

Working together we can, and must, achieve all these and revive the great spirit of the African university.

Thabo Mbeki is the President of South Africa. This article is adapted from his inaugural Association of Commonwealth Universities distinguished lecture at the University of Cape Town last week.

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