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



University of the Free State

Nombulelo holds a Master’s degree in Sociology, as well as an honours and undergraduate qualification in Political Science and International Relations, obtained at Rhodes University.
South African


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.

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?

Key Findings

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.

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 provides important case studies for those who might find themselves within Sociology, Anthropology or African studies, while also providing important "general" considerations and strategies for those in different fields, including even the Sciences, Engineering, Technology, Maths and so on. Often these disciplines falsely believe the decolonial discourse does not apply to them. This notion leads them to the continual erasure of black and feminist contributions in their fields. The content becomes disproportionally centered around patriarchal white contributions and limits the teaching.
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: The idea is to have African theories as the core of the curriculum and the course objectives see to this in a significant way. This is done by mapping social movements in Africa, their history of challenging colonialism and by looking at the following theorists: Kwame Nkrumah, Bantu Biko and Frantz Fanon. The discussion around gender discourse and movements draws from Amina Mama and Obioma Nnaemeka. Some of the case studies include local examples like service delivery protests in Bloemfontein, the work being done by Abahlali Basemjondolo. Arab Springs, Occupy Wall Street and Zapatista protests also provide a global comparative juxtaposition.
Knowledge Exchange Week: The proposed knowledge exchange week would be a way of reimagining learning. The idea would be to invite different individuals working in this space; from activists/ members of social movements, NGOs, academics, students and maybe even media and/or social media representatives reporting on or somehow involved with social movements. This week should help students understand different perspectives that are not just academic in nature, give a glimpse as to how what they have learnt can lead them on different career paths, show real-life experiences and deepen their understanding of the discourse. This week can also be one of the major ways in which we provide concrete opportunities for evidence-based learning and engaged scholarship. The different views that are brought in by those working outside of the university space will bring in African, grassroots and alternative perspectives not often found in university spaces, but which are needed in these spaces in order to start the process of decolonizing them.
No Tests and Exams: The idea is to do away with “traditional assessments” like exams and tests. Doing away with the exams and tests is another way in which this course tries to decolonize higher learning. Exams do not offer any tools or strategies students need to build on their career or help them navigate through life. Instead, they are a stressful process for both students and lecturers and they have led to a high prevalence in student suicides, depression and burnout. Innovative assessments should teach students new skills that are important for the different careers they might find themselves in, including but not limited to things like conducting interviews, engaging with different stakeholders, debate and discussion, presentation skills, journaling, and even a fun social media assessment where students can learn how to create awareness through memes, short videos, podcasts and many other social media tools.
Frequently Workshopping Courses: Students often find the content taught dull, boring or irrelevant. Students often do not have a say in curriculum design except through problematic standardised student evaluation forms that do not capture the nuances of each course and are usually not taken seriously by either students or staff.
The new Social Movements course hopes to remedy this by workshopping the course with students and other departments and possibly other universities. This will be done before the course is piloted. It is also important to perform this process repeatedly, maybe every three to five years, to ensure that the content is still relevant and engaging. |These and other decolonial strategies need to have greater alignment with institutional practices. Decolonized institutions should not be institutions that exclude or deregister students for financial reasons, they should not respond with force and violence when they are challenged by students and staff through protests or other means. They should also care about students’ socioeconomic challenges like struggling to get to campus because they live far away or do not have transport money, struggling to pay rent or living in inadequate accommodation, students who are food insecure, and so on. Even the best and most imaginative, relevant decoloniality strategies will fail when they are offered to hungry students who cannot think beyond where their next meal will come from, or how they will get to campus

Want to read the full paper? It is available open access

Shange, N.T., (2021). ‘Fighting for Relevance: The Revitalization of African Knowledge in the Learning Sphere in South Africa’. In Ethical Research Approaches to Indigenous Knowledge Education (pp. 1-23). IGI Global.

About this research

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

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This research contributes to the following SDGs

About this research

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

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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.


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.


Bantu Education Act
The act of 1953, also known as the Black Education Act. It led to the erasure of African indigenous languages in schools. Black students were forced to learn in Afrikaans and were only taught low labour skills that would aid in assisting whites.
African herb/plant burnt when awakening/communicating with the ancestors. It can also be used for medicinal purposes. The scientific name of the genus to which it belongs is Helichrysum.
Shembe Village located in Inanda, KwaZulu-Natal. It is a Shembe “mecca” and a sacred and holy space. It is where gatherings take place in July and September each year. The direct English translation is “a place of beauty”. eBuhleni is the biggest Shembe faction.
Shembe Village located in Inanda, KwaZulu-Natal, It is a Shembe “mecca” and a sacred and holy space. It is where gatherings take place in July and September each year. The direct English translation is “a higher place of enlightenment”. This branch is the oldest Shembe faction.
Fees Must Fall (FMF)
South African national student movement, characterised by protests across different universities. It challenged structural and systematic exclusions of marginalised students and employees in university spaces, calling even for a decolonized curriculum. The movement peaked in 2015 and 2016, but arguably still exists today.
African Independent Church(es)
Churches that subscribe to African Traditional Religious ideals. Some are big, organised and unite different cultural groups in the way that the Shembe church is, but few are as large or diverse. Many are formed across common cultural identity lines, which is why there are so many different AICs; the different cultures that bind them might have similarities at times, but they are typically vast and diverse.
African Traditional Religion (ATR)
Should preferably be referred to as African Traditional Religion(s) because there are many and they do not carry similar characteristics in the way that Ibramic faiths do. In fact, some reject Ibramic faiths, while others embrace certain aspects and Africanize them. One of the few things that most ATRs have in common is that they respect and honour ancestors.
Shembe Church
An African Traditional Religious church that was founded by Isaiah Shembe in 1910. The church mixes African tradition and culture with what it believes to be the ""best parts"" of Christianity. Isaiah Shembe is the founder of the Shembe Church. Johannes Shembe is Isaiah Shembe’s third wife’s son. He took over the church after Isaiah’s death in 1935.
Predominantly black township located in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.
Sesotho name for a traditional mud house.
Mount iNhlangakazi
Sacred Shembe site where the annual pilgrimage takes place each January.
Located in Northern Cape, South Africa. It is a whites-only Afrikaner town, where black people are typically only allowed in as low skilled labour.
Diviner, spiritual healer, someone who can connect the living with their ancestors through rituals and prayer.
Soweto Uprising
A series of demonstrations and protests which took place in 1976, whereby students challenged the Bantu Education Act, as well as apartheid as a whole."
A derogatory word often used to describe uneducated black people. It loosely translates to “primitive”, “backwards” or “pagan”.

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Phaedra Haringsma prepared this research following an interview with Dr Nombulelo Tholithemba Shange.