“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.