Siyanda Mohutsiwa
Siyanda Mohutsiwa

Academia is Africa’s last hope

“I am studying mathematics because I wanted to study something as difficult as it is useless.” I follow this statement with a polite laugh and wink. This is how I answer a person asking me why I’m studying a subject that most people regard with a terrified shudder (no doubt linked to their bad memories of suffering through calculus in secondary school).

I do not only respond this way to give strangers a small preview of the dark humour that permeates my being, but because for a very long time, I genuinely believed that my degree would become utterly useless upon my earning it. Why? Because 21st century Africa appears to have no use for academic merit, and even less use for those venturing into the more abstract fields of the sciences. We are now being funnelled through the university system to become “grade-A worker-bees”.

The hours and hours of studying is of no use to us if we cannot apply what we have learnt in the corporate field. That is what it is becoming more and more apparent. If we cannot get a job and do something with our degrees, we’re basically screwed.

And to me, this is an unacceptable tragedy — one that will, no doubt, be the biggest reason for Africa’s downfall in this century. The Africa of today appears to have no interest in true innovation. Yes, of course, there are more “think-tanks” and “innovation hubs” than ever before. But these are all new inventions and their success at creating real change is yet to be proven.

We have completely lost touch with academia and many African leaders appear to have no interest in the correlation between true innovative change and the academic world. Everything today, at a micro and macro-level, is about employability — job-creation. But how do we expect to solve any of our problems if we do not use the real “think-tank” and proven “innovation hub” that civilisation has been using for centuries, to move itself from problem to solution? It is the university that is the centre of improvement.

It is the university that is the home of research and policy-creation. We seem to have forgotten this and are intent on turning a once self-sufficient source of true knowledge-building into a factory for employees. I don’t want to scare you — but this could possibly be the biggest mistake of this century: the discouragement of true intellectual development, all in the name of commerce.

Africa currently produces the least research in the world. Not only that, we hold the lowest number of patents. What does that mean? We have the least patented inventions. And are, essentially the last source that any self-respecting academic would go to for original information on any given subject. Ultimately, through our poor research facilities and dismal production of original content — we have proven to the world that we do not have an interest in thinking for ourselves. That’s how you get a new “African Studies” institution springing up in Europe every year, whose research is taken more seriously than our own.

We have to begin to own our own ideas. We have so many intellectuals leaving the continent to go and produce original content in other countries that it’s a wonder we even have the minimal research we currently put out. Academics are leaving academia or the continent at an alarming rate because we have shown them we have no interest in new knowledge.

And this is completely counter to what everyone else is doing. Saudi Arabia and China alone have begun investing billions into developing their own institutions to Ivy League level. Why? Because the new currency of world-domination is ideas.

But we’re currently comfortable with letting dancing economists tout this century as the century for the African entrepreneur. But entrepreneurship is not a sufficient driver of sustainable innovation. That is the simple truth. No country has ever built a sustainable economy from entrepreneurship alone. It is imperative that we wake up from the trap we have fallen in.

This is a sad fact and we need to be mature enough to accept it. I am in no way implying that academia is perfect, or that it alone will solve all of our problems — but damn it, we have to put our faith in something. And right now that something isn’t going to be China, Barack Obama or multinational corporations. It’s got to be our own ideas.

We’ve got to begin re-investing in the notion of getting our best minds together, teaching them research methodology and making sure that the academic process is one that has our best intentions at heart.

Otherwise, we’re basically screwed.

Siyanda is a 20-year-old mathematics major in her final year at the University of Botswana. Follow her ungovernable tweets at @siyandawrites.

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    • Momma Cyndi

      Wonderfully thought provoking. Thank you.

    • Asif


      Just not at WITS university which is now a failed instituition.

    • Tshepo Mpshe

      True in deed!

      it is quite shocking that at a certain stage in a child’s development, all he/she is told is that education is key but when you walk out of a university with a degree in engineering, all you are given a chance to do is to repeat what has been tried many times before.

      how i wish universities would produce intellectuals and not graduates!
      how i wish employers would recruit innovators and not graduates!
      but even more, i so wish those of us that have successfully walked out of institutions of higher learning would challenge the status quo.

    • Manqokomane

      I doubt that we have a chance, its not completely that we totally lack the thinking capability(ies). In a capitalist world where brain drain reigns supreme, and in a continent that lack of capital as a result of a specific set of priorities, victimization by the developed world will continue, we’ll establish and / or invest and someone with means and knowledge from abroad will register patent rights and still the idea, our grade A’s in Maths and Science get offers offers to developed world universities and they are gone (with their skills and thinking capacities)

    • Barbra

      The question that we need to address is WHY those South Africans are leaving?
      Until we are ready to acknowledge what is wrong in SA, we have no hope in fixing it.

    • Duncan

      You sir are an example of what is right in this country. I think it is becoming now very clear that we as a people need to work together to rebuild, and lead this country into the future. We must do this despite our government and current leaders. As somebody once said, don’t try change the old system… Rather build a better system to make the old one obsolete.

    • Sipho

      Good thoughts. One thing though, it seems education is regarded by many as an antidote to hard work. Food production and maintenance of physical infrastructure is not highly regarded among the educated class. The day education starts to make us create things than pushing pens & papers, and mouthing pointless and tired economic/political theories, would be a great start to our salvation.
      There’s nothing worse than hearing an African economist parroting conservative economic theories with seriousness.

    • http://Mail&G Di

      Nicely said.
      “Scientists may have sophisticated laboratories,
      But never forget ‘eureka’ was inspired in a bathtub.”
      ― Toba Beta, Betelgeuse Incident
      Teaching and research is the backbone of all invention and of ensuring the ability to create our own ideas.

    • Nicole

      A great article – thank you! For the most part thinking (or at least more abstract ideas) as a whole is being undervalued – everything must have a direct application or else it is useless. We often don’t see the value of studying something that doesn’t follow the equation “studying X will = X profession”. While you speak of mathematics, the same could be argued for literature and other liberal arts subjects!

    • PrettyBelinda

      Strangely enough its the academics who are recognized as the lead agencies of the research and development component in almost all key strategic plans of government. Like entrepreneurs its important that research academics know their terrain and where they can make inroads into research development and innovation.

      So I wonder how students are organised at universities to get their ideas to the sectots. Do they have societies fraternities or established networks in their respective fields. Are they aware and do they understand their roles and responsibilities within key sectors such as health agriculture renewable energy mining…just to mention a few

    • Coscos

      Thanks for a well thought off article and hope you keep the good work, my first comment will be one of the greatest son of the soil said you be a change you want to see and real Africans will never leave Africa. Don’t worry about those who leave Africa for now because it is just in the name of gathering information and the experience needed to stir Africa in the right direction, They will come back(home is where the heart is) when the right time comes. Many African are intelligent and that on its own is a huge problem because you need a clever person to drive you in the right direction. I believe your homework now will be to come up with an amicable strategies to change Africa for the better, education is not the only way to a better you and that is an irony in many African minds. We are not all the same and we will never be all educated, some are very clever to be educated while others are very stubborn and also the Maslow hierarchy has to be balanced as well. I have had an idea to create a spiral escalator only to find that one of the biggest companies in the world have developed it link( ), My brother has come up with the way to advertise on the mobile devices but some company stole the idea but of all that you never give up and always hope for the best, this is just to cheer you up and to help you realises that they are many Africans who share the same sentiment with you.
      Don’t forget be the change you…

    • David

      Sister, I hate to say you’re right! There’s a pervasive attitude: “I don’t give a damn as long as I’m getting my pay cheque”. Among students it’s an expectation to great marks without the required labour. All so they can get good jobs. Once on the job, do nothing and get paid, the same anti-work ethic and strategy they used to get their degrees. From that standpoint, studying mathematics, which is hard work, is such a stupid thing to do. How lame of you to do it because you could simply chill, have fun and collect the degree, the job and the bling the world owes you.

      The idea of jobs has poisoned students’s minds. So they chase chickens with salt in their hands. Do they hear you when you speak in class? Talk all you want, they are busy thinking four words: J-O-B-S. To hell with your talk about avid reading, writing, theory, ideas, research methods, innovation and all that crap. Are you crazy?

      Tell students to hang out together to explore ideas informally. They’ll tell you, “We have no time, sir”. They’d rather go to church for prayers to get jobs. Church never stir their hearts and minds to work hard, read, explore, innovate. Yet that’s precisely what church did in the West. Check out Max Weber’s classic “Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism”? With that ethic, church founded the Ivy League schools.

      Then there’s this unbearable yoke of red tape which has made universities into suffocating spaces that asphyxiate even the slightest…

    • RoyVolkwyn

      @Tshepo Mpshe
      ” when you walk out of a university with a degree in engineering, all you are given a chance to do is to repeat what has been tried many times before.”

      I can’t believe that. Can you name any South African university whose engineering graduates are not given a chance to do something new?

    • http://[email protected] thembinkosi xaba

      Sister honestly , I for one belong to that religion of honed wisdom so perpetual that few of our own understand let alone seek to.
      Keep it up , Africa can and will rise with people like you definitely answers we will find.Ignorance has the shortest lifespan.

    • http://Bloghome Chris2

      I have read that the perception is rife among African students that if one gets qualified for a job and gets appointed, then you never have to work hard again. This is of course a total misconception, particularly in innovative directions where knowledge is expanding at an unprecedented rate. Just to keep up with latest developments can be very taxing and this is the reason for the trend towards extreme specialisation in e.g. the physical sciences. The joke that as you specialise you know more and more about less and less till you know everything about nothing is not completely without foundation. Of course there is a difference between basic science and applied science, where the gained or existing knowledge is applied in a useful manner in a product or a procedure. Many companies are interested in applied science which they can use in a product and are willing to sponsor the necessary development work, for instance at a university (e.g. postgrad students working under a professor). Such work may lead to patents and the associated confidentiality goes against the open exchange of information typical of an institute of learning. A few advanced companies in the developed world will even sponsor some basic research, because they have a longer-term vision. Such knowledge cannot be patented. In South Africa we are lucky that the deficit is less than in large parts of Africa, but benign neglect in the past 20 years or so will require a giant effort to compensate.

    • pootie

      the lack of innovation and true functional academia in africa does not exist as an abstract. we have to be logical and realize that the current state of affairs are the effect and hence the cause must be investigated. we have to realize that we exist in a world controlled by people practicing white supremacy. “if you fail to understand the global system of white supremacy, everything that you think you understand will only confuse you” – neely fuller jr. Africans have to realize that education is used as a tool by the white supremacists to maintain power of non whites especially africans. this is why we do not produce any of our own technologies. our best and brightest always ends up using their brilliance in service of the white supremacist system. africans are on a collision course with near extermination of the african by the white supremacist. the development of 3d printing technology will revolutionize society and we africans are not adequately preparing to protect ourselves against the future. education must be a tool to assure a people’s future. there is no such thing as a rainbow nation and never will be, africans needs to realize that we need to unite around a common goal and work towards that goal. other nations and other groups of people will not do that for us. we should not forget that we as africans are a conquered people, we are still conquered and the decendants of the original conquerors are doing their job in confusing us. wake and rise up africans!!!!

    • Sibusiso Mabuza

      This article misses the point. The entrepreneur is what Africa needs the most, this is not to say that the academic is not also needed. The mathematician, complements the needs of industry examples being in actuarial and risk management, mathematical models in financial and engineering sector and scientific computing, the list goes on.
      Academic programs which are in line with local needs have to be created to address the current mismatch of skill, especially in countries like South Africa and Botswana.
      The issue of patents is not really an education issue but its a judicial-legislative issue of intellectual property rights, this is something we are yet to work on. Africans are producing high quality scientific work, it’s just that they do it outside the continent.

      Good luck on your abstract algebra :)

    • goawaybird

      Siyanda: Well written! Bravo! :-)

      “The hours and hours of studying is of no use to us if we cannot apply what we have learnt in the corporate field. That is what it is becoming more and more apparent. If we cannot get a job and do something with our degrees, we’re basically screwed.”

      Very accurately observed. Isn’t it sad! We need to get our children to read – all of them, from an early age. Not computer literate or all that other stuff: To read. The better-read our preschoolers are, the better our children read, the better they will understand the world and the more likely will we break out of this commercial trap.

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    • Opeyemi Ogunsola

      I am happy I discovered this, though belatedly 3 years after. All the good remarks I would have made had I discovered this 3 years ago, have been captured in the comments section. Well done, Siyanda!