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Medical council to prepare stance on decolonisation

Image: Simon Fraser University [CC BY 2.0] via Flickr

South Africa’s Medical Research Council will publish a position paper on how to decolonise medical research in the country before the end of the year, its president has said.

Glenda Gray was speaking at the SAMRC headquarters in Belville, Cape Town, on 30 May at a colloquium discussing the place of Africa and Africans in medical research.

“We have to come up with a medical and health research agenda that’s applicable and pertinent and makes impact on the citizens of South Africa and beyond our borders,” Gray said.

She said challenges include making medical research in the post-Apartheid era accessible for all citizens as well as respectful of the subjects of research. She also highlighted the importance of ensuring the country controls research within its borders, especially research that is funded from abroad.

“With our little voice and little money, how do we remain in control of our research agenda? We have a six-month timeframe for drawing up SAMRC’s position, and we aim to have it ready by the end of the year. We’ll be the first council to have a position on decolonisation. That’s revolutionary, I think,” she said.

The decolonisation of education, especially at tertiary level, has been a prominent discussion point in South African universities since students from the Rhodes Must Fall protests (originally against a statue of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes), which evolved into the Fees Must Fall movement, began calling for “free, decolonised education”.

However, while most of the country’s universities are grappling with questions of how to remove the Eurocentric bias from what they teach in history, law, and even medicine, the government and its research funders have been slow to follow.

A key question for the colloquium—the first of four organised by the University of South Africa’s Transdisciplinary African Psychologies Programme and the UNISA-SAMRC Violence, Injury and Peace Research Unit—was how to ensure a transformed and decolonised academe without harming the institutions.

“Many of us, students and researchers, want a radical change but we don’t want to destroy the institutions,” said Kopano Ratele, the UNISA professor who led the colloquium.

However, several participants questioned whether South Africa and other African countries could truly gain control of their medical research agendas if they did not control the research funding.

Even in South Africa, which leads the continent in terms of research support, a lot of funding comes in partnership with international donors, said Zoleka Ngcete, a research manager from the SAMRC. She said that in the rest of Africa there was even less national funding for research. This might need to change in order for Africans to change the direction and practice of research, she said.

“We’re not really in the game in Africa. Even efforts like the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa [a Nairobi-based funding platform channelling research funding to Africans from funders such as the Wellcome Trust] are funded from outside,” she said. “One of the things we must ask ourselves is how do we start to change this?”