Research for Africa, by Africa

FILE PICTURE: Chairperson of the African Union Commission Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma. Picture: Nigel Sibanda
FILE PICTURE: Chairperson of the African Union Commission Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma. Picture: Nigel Sibanda

NOTE: Article first appeared in The Citizen newspaper on April 25, 2014. 

Pooling resources and working together, instead of competing, are some of the ways research conducted at African universities can help propel the continent to be a global leader, projecting to 2063.

During a public lecture on research in African universities in the Senate Hall at the University of Pretoria yesterday, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, chairperson of the African Union Commission, emphasised how research done at universities can help with the overall development of Africa.

“The only way to do so is by getting universities to look 50 years into the past and 50 years in to the future,” said Dlamini-Zuma. Projecting ahead “liberates you – it is not defined and confined by immediate circumstances”.

Research carried out at universities is one of the ways universities could help to “turn all our resources into wealth for our people,” said Dlamini-Zuma. A fundamental way of doing this was to broaden the base from which students are chosen, she said.

The university’s vice-chancellor, Cheryl de la Ray, responded by saying demand was too high to accommodate more students. “We don’t take international students for our undergraduate courses because of huge demand locally,” she said.

“We make plans and expect other people to fund them.”

Dlamini-Zuma said development needed to happen internally, with Africans helping Africans. The AU has found that most African researchers collaborate with researchers from overseas and not one another, something which “surprised and disappointed” her.

She added that African universities and researchers needed to work together towards Pan-African development, mentioning the African Union was in the process of starting a virtual Pan-African university.

Dlamini-Zuma stressed that through research conducted at African universities “vexing questions could be answered”. She cited a cure for malaria and the gradual disappearance of Lake Chad as examples of questions that needed to be investigated.

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The “r” word

I think I’ve figured it out. I’ve figured out why so many of my calls have not been returned.  Why so many emails have been no more than two line replies. Why so many of the people I have met in the past two weeks, have answered my questions by simply shaking their heads and in some lucky instances offering a referral.

Shop owners, developers, centre managers and some civil servants have all shied away when I dropped the big “r” word. Is too serious for them to take a chance, to make an official statement or even give an honest opinion?

Is the “r” word the thing that has closed off pathways to people who seemed like the most legitimate and potentially helpful sources?

Research. That is the “r” word.

In the past when I’ve worked on stories people have been open and keen to indulge me. Quick to answer my questions, send additional resources even.

I suppose this is not just any story though. Its the story.

It’s a test, a challenge and a chance to bring together our vast set of skills. To prod and poke, to not tire when it gets to daunting, to show that we’re capable. Capable of leaving shallow waters and venturing deeper. Of digging and digging until we find a story that hasn’t been told. Of being able to see angles that others have missed. Capable of being the kind of journalists we’ve been groomed to be.

The “r” word takes us to another level. It’s not a a matter of scratching the surface. It’s running up and down and around and around, it’s writing and re-writing, shooting and re-shooting. It’s what will launch us into greatness.

I’m trying to swallow the “r” word, to imbibe it, digest it and eventually produce something worthy. Onwards and upwards.

Encounters

There have been a number of encounters along this in-depth journey that have been interesting, surprising, disappointing and some enlightening.

Today I had three different encounters that served as a further peak into the Chinese diaspora in Johannesburg.  Well maybe not so much a peak but rather an actual front row seat.

The first was in the morning at the first meeting of the day. Shandu and I headed out to Randburg to meet the centre manager at China Discount Market. Upon pulling in to the parking lot, the grey and red walls seemed to be the only thing we could see. The parking lot was almost empty.

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Side piece

After a few stops and starts we sat down to talk to 26 year old Angelique Gu. She was very helpful and answered all our questions, even though our conversations were intetrupted quite often. The fifth and final interruption came from a man wearing an all black suit. He nodded in our direction and then went on to have  a whole chat with Angelique.  Then he sat down and his jacket exposed a silver gun tucked away in a holster on his hip. Two or three nervous glances later Shandu and I started packing up.

Slumber makes you fat

The next trip saw me heading out to old Chinatown with my group members Emelia and Prelene. While milling about before our interview,  Prelene and I walked into a cafe quickly. I yawned when we were paying and the lady helping us said: “You like sleep to much”. To which I replied well I do actually.  Then she went on to tell me that’s why I’m so big (she made a gesture with her arms to demonstrate my roundness). I laughed as one does when they are reminded of how they look. She then went on to tell me: “You too fat for your age. Sleep less, exercise more. Stop eating meat and only eat veg.” At which point she showed me a sample by taking a big mouthful of what looked like strips of  cucumber in a soup.  She licked her chopsticks to demonstrate how delicious her healthy lunch was. Chinese wisdom is blunt innit?

A historical affair

We had an interview with four generations of the Pon family – one of the oldest Chinese families in Johannesburg.  We met with the family at a noodle bar.

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Two black pigtails and the sweetest, cutest face were the highlight of my day. Four year old ballerina, Gabriella Pon had me from the moment she showed us her first ballet move. She was very excited to show everyone her new red tutu and very keen to pose for photos.

Not only is she a ballerina but she also speaks three languages fluently (Cantonese, Mandarin and English). And has the cutest wave. She made my day.

Digital Apartheid

exPress imPress hosted its second roundtable discussion on the 11th of May 2012. The topic for discussion was: ‘Digital Apartheid: Is the smartphone age segregating or uniting South Africans?’.

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Nathalie Hyde-Clarke.

The Graduate Seminar Room was not as full as we had anticipated but there was an eager audience present and ready to engage with the topic at hand. The first speaker was the ‘headliner’ if you will: Nathalie Hyde-Clarke. She is an ex-Witsie who is now the Head of the School of Communication at the University of Johannesburg. Her presentation was based on a research study she had recently done on trends of mobile phone usage in the Greater Johannesburg area. Her findings were very illuminating and served to debunk some assumptions about mobile phone and smartphone usage that I had.

Her findings could be summarised as follows. In 2010, 85 percent of the South African population owned a cell phone, with around 35 percent of those using their phones to go online. By 2012, there was a major increase in these numbers with 35 million people owning cellphones and 36 percent of those being smartphones. She found that people do not really use their smartphones to their full capacity. Most people use it for social networking and entertainment purposes which is problematic as a large number of people who own phones do not really know how to use them properly – smartphone or otherwise. Hence, the lack of mobile phone literacy was a problem that she identified in her research. There are no classes to learn how to use a phone. Most people just learn as they go along which is not an altogether bad thing but for example for someone who lives in a rural area and is illiterate, this could prove to be a trying task.

Nathalie made a statement about the teenagers and kids of today missing out on the world due to their preoccupation with their phone. It was only fitting to have a representative of the youth to challenge this. Leenesha Pather, a fellow exPress imPress blogger and Media Studies Honours student, attributed the growth of smartphone usage to affordability. Blackberries often come with a R60 internet bundle which effectively soothes the airtime woes of many ‘broke’ youngsters. She did mention that while accessibility had increased, smartphones serve to segregate people on a physical level in the sense that people would rather text, BBM or tweet one another than actually go out for a coffee together, hereby not quite countering Nathalie’s point (as I had hoped) but supporting it. But in the same breath, Leenesha mentioned that perhaps if everybody had access to smartphones, race and class divisions could be bridged.

roundtable2-300x225Following Leenesha, Wendy Willems, a lecturer and now Head of Department of Media Studies at Wits University, spoke. She has been doing research in Zambia on mobile phone usage. She mentioned that patterns of ownership and cost are very similar to the earlier mentioned South African case. People who cannot afford these technologies are ‘left behind’ and this creates a burgeoning digital divide. In Zambia, people attribute mobile phones to a number of social problems like adultery. A lot of people seem to think that mobile phones break up happy homes.

In the discussion held afterwards, the debate echoed ease of access in Africa and questioned how reflective the findings actually are of places outside Greater Johannesburg. Along with this, there was a shared sentiment that smartphones need to be made more affordable, used as more than accessories and used to their full potential. If this happened they could be used as educational tools and really help to put the world at everyone’s finger tips.

**NOTE: Post first appeared on exPress imPress on May 28 2014.