Indigenous and Minority Rights
Southern Africa

Fighting for Relevance: The Revitalization of African Knowledge in the Learning Sphere in South Africa

Reduced Inequality

This chapter shows how formal education and knowledge production in South Africa has been used as a tool to repress Black people, while discrediting their knowledge systems.

Original research
Book chapter: Fighting for Relevance: The Revitalization of African Knowledge in the Learning Sphere in South Africa (2021)
Peer Reviewed


This research used a qualitative approach, combining fieldwork, in-depth interviews and narrative analysis.

The central research technique was in-depth interviews. This paper drew from secondary sources such as books, articles and online sources It also relied on ethnographic research done on the Shembe Church.

The bulk of the primary research was conducted in eBuhleni, one of the biggest Shembe factions. I visited this division of the Shembe Church during their July gathering in 2011, where I documented details about the Shembe history, ideas, practices and the followers’ perceptions of how they are treated individually and institutionally as a religious group. More information was gathered through visits to ekuPhakameni, the oldest faction of the Shembe Church.

Finally, I interviewed student leaders and students who were involved in Fees Must Fall (FMF) action and the continuing decolonialising projects taking shape in many institutions all over South Africa. These interviews focused on reimagined educational institutions and what decolonized structures might look like, as well as the challenges in making such structures a reality.

However, its important to note that this qualitative research drew a lot from a narrative approach. This means that a lot of the analysis is based of my participants' lived experiences. These were not far removed from the lived experiences of many people of colour in South Africa's higher education, but they are also very unique and personalised. The findings would have been slightly different and might have had more general applicability had it been quantitative for example, but the level of detail in the analysis would have been lost.



This research was independently conducted and did not receive funding from outside of the university.

  • For policymakers
  • For Government & Policy
  • South Africa
  • decolonisation
  • fees must fall
  • indigenous knowledge
  • natural medicine
  • oppression
  • Summary made: 2021

This paper highlights many of the issues and challenges in South Africa’s educational and knowledge production structures, especially those that have their origins rooted in Western or colonial history, which sees itself as superior to African history.

This was done primarily by exploring South Africa’s history of protesting and resistance within schools and universities. However, this paper in no way suggests that people should boycott schools and mainstream educational or health structures, as they still have their importance and relevance, especially in a modernised space like South Africa. It would also be a mistake to completely reject these structures when not enough work has been done to build up African systems and ideas.

The contradiction, however, is that while we need mainstream education for our survival, especially in the modern world, it is also rooted in oppression and creates an inferiority complex amongst Africans who are not represented in the structure. The intention of this paper is to dispel the myth that African ideas are inferior, whilst showing a glimpse of the history that led to this false sentiment.

Like the #FeeMustFall student movement, this paper calls for decolonized social structures, especially in education. Our country cannot survive without this change, as racial and political tensions rise every day.

Africans have a lot to teach the world, and empowering Africans to understand and be proud of their culture and the knowledge that comes from it, has the potential to fix many of Africa’s and South Africa’s problems, including high unemployment, challenges in accessing healthcare, a failing school system, poverty, environmental and technological challenges and many more.

Taking steps to prioritise African languages and cultural systems within “mainstream” education, may also be the restorative tool needed to address the festering apartheid wounds and burdens still carried by many black South Africans. Moreover, giving more importance to African languages and ideas in schools and universities may save our school systems as knowledge will be delivered in a language in which more students are comfortable learning. Such content would also instil the missing notion that black people are enough and can be doctors, scientists, inventors, farmers, entrepreneurs, environmentalists, writers and more, without turning their backs on their culture, because their culture is the thing that can get them to where they need to go.

This discussion includes looking at Helichrysum, a herb usually used in African cultures for religious reasons, but which also has important health and scientific purposes, including curing diseases and illnesses in a way that is significantly cheaper and not as risky as Western medicine. If Helichrysum alone has so much potential, what about the other African science and knowledge we ignore while we obsessively chase all that is Western in not only medical but also educational systems?


  • Much of the #FeesMustFall student movement calls for a decolonized South Africa and decolonized educational structures, which put African science, knowledge and philosophies first.

    The call for decolonized education challenges our current reality. While the reality remains, African solutions are the only things that can save Africa from its problems.

  • Even though a herb like impepho and many others can cure a whole host of illnesses in ways that few Western medicines can, it is still sidelined or used as an “alternative” form of healing
  • Herbs like impepho and the production of them are sustainable.

What it means

Impepho is an important holistic, ritualistic, cultural and medicinal herb. The scientific name for impepho is Helichrysum, it has many uses in the African context, including burning it to awaken the ancestors when the living wish to communicate or receive messages from them. Impepho is also used by individuals, sangomas or traditional healers, allowing them to communicate between different realms.

Impepho can be used in various ways, from burning it, to drinking it as a tea, taken raw, in bath water, using it as an ingredient in traditional beer and many other methods. The medicinal uses are just as diverse.

The versatility of this and many other African herbs is impressive. Even though a herb like impepho and many others can cure a whole host of illnesses in ways that few Western medicines can, it is still sidelined or used as an “alternative” form of healing.

A herb like impepho is cheap, holistic, easily accessible and has many medical functions. With South Africa’s health challenges and expensive healthcare systems, it would be a huge advantage to have the knowledge of the medical uses of this herb more commonly known and encouraged by medical practitioners, government, researchers and society.

Additionally, it would be useful to create interdisciplinary discourse around something like impepho between the traditionalists, sciences and social sciences. The traditionalists can provide valuable information on its cosmological and health uses, which the health scientists can research further, and the representatives of the social sciences can analyse the way this herb creates better access to healthcare, unity and social cohesion from its use in rituals.

Healthcare in South Africa and globally is also responsible for a lot of pollution, waste and environmental degradation. While African indigenous health practices such as the use of impepho are far more sustainable. The environment is important in African ritualist healing, where some practices are even performed out in nature.

So while finding solutions for public health in African systems, we indirectly address ecological degradation.

African Knowledge systems are interdisciplinary contributions are a kind of “epistemic anarchy”, which breaks the western scholarship rules which bond academics to a single field or discipline, as if life happens in these predetermined categories the academy creates. Life does not take place in these vacuums; whatever shifts and changes happen in ecology, for example, will have an impact in other spaces as the current environmental crisis has demonstrated to us. The current environmental crisis affects public health, social cohesion as communities are forced to dissolve and migrate in search for healthier spaces, even the economy is greatly impacted by ecological degradation.

This example is very specifically South African, though it can influence decolonial discussions around the globe, the case studies draw a lot more on the South African context. It is a limitation, but it was also done intentionally because the South African higher education sphere excessively draws from international, often western discourse and then tries to squeeze it into our context, which often causes more challenges than solutions.

How to use

  • Prioritise African sciences and knowledge systems especially in the wake of the destruction caused by western contemporary and historical systems such as capitalism, colonialism and neo-colonialism
  • Influence the restructuring and reimagining of education and methodology as an important knowledge production tool
  • To ensure that decolonisation is not just a concept relevant only in higher education, to ensure it starts to move outwards to influence policy on education, environment and healthcare, as well as the world of work as a whole
  • Most importantly, this research is most important for educators and institutions looking for inspiration or even a "template" of how to decolonise their content and to a lesser extent, operational structures
  • It is important to ensure that decolonisation strategies are bottom-up participatory processes, rooted in frequent dialogue, consultation and shared experiences and strategies
  • Draw More from African Theorists and Case Studies
  • Knowledge Exchange Week
  • No Tests and Exams
  • Frequently Workshopping Courses
  • The new Social Movements course hopes to remedy this by workshopping the course with students and other departments and possibly other universities

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Shange, Nombulelo Tholithemba. 'Fighting for Relevance: The Revitalization of African Knowledge in the Learning Sphere in South Africa'. Acume.