Advancing nanotechnology shrinking a world of problems

Just imagine that you take a bath and shrink by about 1.8 billion times – almost like in the 1989 movie Honey I Shrunk the Kids! If you walk into your bedroom, what you would see would not be a bed, chair, television, or people, but atoms and cells.

Reduced to the “nanoscale,” you would not only see the atoms that everything is made from, but you would actually be able to move them around! Now, if you put those atoms together in exciting new ways, like building blocks, you could build all kinds of incredible materials, everything from brand new medicines to ultra-fast computer chips and extremely strong materials.

However, since we live on a scale of metres and kilometres, it is quite hard for us to comprehend a world that is too small to see. Nano means one billionth (or 10-9), so a nanometer (nm) is one-billionth of a metre. To put it in perspective: a single water molecule is about 1.5nm; a strand of human DNA 2.5nm; a single haemoglobin molecule 5nm; a single bacterium about 1 000nm long; and a red blood cell 7 000nm wide. If you are a blond, your hair is probably between 15 000 and 50 000nm in diameter. If you have dark hair, its diameter is likely to be between 50 000 and 180 000 nm.

Operating at the nanoscale, scientists and engineers are currently creating new tools, products and technologies to resolve some of the world’s most burning issues, including low-cost filters to provide clean drinking water; medical devices and drugs to discover and treat diseases more successfully with fewer side-effects; lighting that uses a fraction of the electricity; and sensors to detect and identify harmful chemical or biological substances.

One of the most powerful aspects of operating in the nanoworld is that at the nanoscale the physical and chemical properties of matter change and the substance behaves differently. Copper, for instance, is transparent on the nanoscale, while gold, which is naturally unreactive, becomes chemically very active. Carbon, which is quite soft in its normal graphite form, becomes incredibly hard when it is tightly packed into a nanotube.

Although they may not be aware of it, many people are already using nanotechnology, for example wearing nanotechnology trousers, walking on a nanotechnology carpet, using nanotechnology suitcases or sleeping on nanotechnology bed sheets.

All these products are made from materials coated with “nanowhiskers.” These tiny surface fibres are so small that dirt or water cannot penetrate them, which means the underlying layers of material remain dirt-free.

If red wine is spilled on a nanotech carpet, the nano-particulate coating will keep the material from absorbing it and staining the carpet. These tiny surface fibres are somewhat akin to the 1 billion tiny adhesive hairs of 200nm on a Gecko’s toes that enable it to walk on a ceiling.

Some sunscreens use nanotechnology in a similar way: they cover the skin with a layer of nanoscopic titanium dioxide or zinc oxide that blocks the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays. Nano-coatings are also used on scratch-resistant car bumpers, anti-slip steps on vans and buses, wound dressings and corrosion resistant paints.


Another form of nanotechnology that is quite well-known are nanochips, packed with thousands of transistors currently just 45nm wide. However, cutting-edge experiments are already developing much smaller devices that will make computers even smaller and more powerful.

A range of nanoscale materials are used in thin films to make them water-repellent, self-cleaning, anti-reflective, ultraviolet or infrared-resistant, anti-microbial, anti-fog, scratch-resistant, or electrically conductive.

Nanofilms are frequently used on eyeglasses, computer displays and cameras to protect or treat the surfaces.

The displays on cellphones, laptops and flat screen TVs are moving to organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs), made from nanostructured polymer films providing a very high quality picture.

In the area of nanomaterials, carbon nanotubes are just as promising. These rod-shaped carbon molecules are roughly 1nm wide and 100 times stronger than steel. Carbon nanotubes are used in tennis racquets, baseball bats, and some car parts because of their huge mechanical strength and light weight. Nasa and other scientists recently suggested that carbon nanotubes could be used to make a gigantic elevator stretching from Earth to the space station.

However, it is the possibility of building incredibly small machines from individual atoms that have scientists excited.

Nanomachines could be made into nanorobots (or nanobots) that could be injected into our bloodstream to screen for cancer and infection, to destroy tumours and to remove harmful bacteria and toxins.

Also in the nanomedicine field, nanofibres were successfully used on mice to increase the growth of nerve cells and help regenerate damaged spinal nerves in a damaged brain or spinal cord.

No doubt, the future is tiny due to the continuous advances of nanotechnology in medicine, biotechnology, manufacturing, information technology and other equally diverse areas.

Written by Prof Louis Fourie, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Knowledge and Information Technology

*This story first appeared in Independent Media’s Business Report

A utopian view on a better agricultural model

The land debate promises to be a hot election ticket as the nation prepares to head to the polls in 2019. As the propaganda and hysteria mounts around this emotive topic I propose that we consider a more utopian approach to land reform. It all hinges on the question; “How can the country’s agricultural land be placed not into the ownership of a few – but to the service of many?”

To put this into perspective let’s consider the advent of music streaming services.

Back in the day my father’s LP collection, of no more than a 100 songs, was one of his proudest items.  As a member of generation X, I realized quickly that copying songs on a cassette gave me immediate access to the entire song collection of my friends. That feels like a million years ago. Today, I use a streaming service that provides me with more songs than I can listen to, but none of them I own.

Ownership brings hardship with it. Think about a car. It costs a lot of money to buy and maintain, while most of the time it doesn’t add much value. The future of personal transport will be self-driving cars that are based on a subscription service. The future brings the promise of owning fewer things but with the benefit of many more.

This brings my argument back to contemporary agriculture. Let’s acknowledge that the poorer people are the more money they spend on food, and the more likely they are to be part of the informal economy. If I believe the rhetoric of SA politics, we should focus our efforts on this specific and unfortunately still large social group.

I propose that we start the discussion on land reform with a most desirable outcome: which is to provide the country with cheap, maybe free, food- delivered to doorsteps.

Communities, in their different forms, could arrange crops based on what they want, staple (grain, vegetables, etc), and which quantity. Comparative data about how much food one needs for a comfortable diet is available in order to avoid unreasonable demands.

These demands should be quite stable over time and vary mainly with cultural differences. Agricultural producers would compete to fulfil this wish list of food. Why? Because the agreement that they will feed these people will grant them access to land. Those producers that show that they will feed the most people come first to choose from the available land. Priority is always given to the producer who can feed the most people with the land or use the fewest hectares to feed the same amount of people. This would ensure competition and would reward those who produce most efficiently – also the right use of technology. Who are the producers? Farmers, cooperatives of farm workers, international organizations, … whoever wants to use the land to feed the people. To ensure that producers also have a financial incentive, the producer will get access to additional land (as a percentage of the land to provide food) on which they will have the right to farm cash-crops or more value-added produce like citrus etc. The land would be given free of charge.

The producers must show not only that they can feed people, but also that they can arrange transport and distribution. Needless to say, that such a door to door delivery will provide employment to community members. Not only would the benefit be cheaper and better food supply, but also would opportunities arise along the distribution chain.

No, what I propose is not socialism! There is no state deciding for the people what they want, and the state is not awarding the contracts to a preferred producer as we see it now with service delivery.

Arbitrary courts would settle disputes between the communities and the producers, and award compensation if the promised food delivery was not fulfilled. A reckless overpromising can be avoided through comparing the suggested food production with the achieved productivity of the past years.

Times of technological developments and economic uncertainty have never been good times for social utopias. Still, when we speak about restructuring the agriculture of the country, we should use this opportunity to think about solutions for food provisions that are radically different to our current systems. After all what do we have to loose.

Dr Thomas Thurner

CPUT Research Chair: Innovation in Society

Economic viewpoints on the land reform debate in South Africa

The land reform debate in South Africa is dominated by a political agenda. This is a pity because other more relevant economic viewpoints on the subject are being ignored.

In 2015, when the last census took place, more than every second South African was marked as poor – a higher number than in 2011. For these millions of people access to affordable food and having enough to eat every day is a major challenge.

The price of agricultural products has risen steeply over the last seven years, illustrating how delicate agricultural production actually is. A basket of food items that cost R100 in 2010 rose to over R170 in 2017. A further price hike has to be avoided if the country is serious about eradicating hunger. On top of this, the price increases also reduce the disposable income of the middle class.

What this means is that politicians concerned with the structure of land ownership should also be evaluating how it will affect the supply of food. To do this, it’s imperative to understand what actually drives productivity in agriculture.

Across the world technology is enabling efficiency gains and productivity growth. Different technologies have been grouped with information technology and turned into entirely new production concepts. Modern agricultural production requires an approach that embraces technological opportunities. And breaking farms into smaller units makes the adoption of these technologies much more difficult.

In my view making South Africa’s agricultural sector more competitive is more important than fighting about political categories. While the skin colour of our farmers is of symbolic importance, the rise of the food prices is very real for everybody – particularly poor people. Breaking up the land into small-holdings with no capital will catapult the country back in time. South Africans should first be discussing how it can maximise food production through innovative technologies, and then how it shares the profits, or ownership.

Cutting edge technology

Precision agriculture, for example, builds on IT applications for soil and crop surveillance, helping farmers make optimal decisions about both. This reduces the use of contaminants and increases productivity. Mapping technologies based on satellite data, together with drones for crop scouting, has massively increased productivity in major crop-producing countries like Argentina, Brazil or Australia. Technological development has not only lowered the unit cost; it has also increased the productivity of land that wasn’t suitable for farming.

In the 1990s and 2000s machinery was becoming bigger in size and power. Now, they’re getting smarter. Agricultural equipment is increasingly performing automated work – from sewing to harvesting to packing and shipping. Fully automatic greenhouses or integrated industrial mini-mills with robotic production lines are no longer a thing of the future. While this new type of machinery holds the future of agriculture, it require substantial investments.

Another area where technological innovation can really help is in the threat posed by climate change. As global temperatures continue to rise, the consequences for water-based ecosystems will be dramatic.

To ensure food is still being brought to the table farmers will rely even more on resistant crops such as genetically modified organisms (GMOs). It has become widely accepted that the world won’t be able to feed its population without GMOs.

Many of these seeds require less input – like water, fertilizer and chemicals – as they are much more resistant. South Africa started testing GMOs at an early stage and approved modified cotton and maize variants in 1997. As such, agriculture GMOs account for the majority of the country’s field crops.

In addition, climate change is leading to many regions becoming more habitable for heat-loving pests and pathogenic agents. Here again, the country will have to rely on new technologies to control pathogens and to treat seed material.

Bigger versus smaller farms

Technological solutions are essential to competitive agriculture, but they are expensive and require large amounts of capital. As a result, agricultural producers all over the world have become larger – instead of smaller – as more land allows to make better use of these investments.

There are a number of drawbacks to smallholder production. The first is that, while technologies increase efficiencies and make smallholdings economically sustainable, it’s unlikely that a farmer on a small plot of land will be able to invest the money that is required.

The second is also related to investment: under private ownership, the farmer is required to make the necessary technological updates to stay competitive. The danger with state-arranged smallholdings is that investments are either not made at all, or they have to be shouldered by someone else. This could either be the consumers through higher prices or – what I consider more likely – the taxpayer.

Given that so many South Africans still go hungry every night, the country’s focus should rest on raising food production while lowering the prices that consumers pay. The country must not lose sight of the real issue: how to provide enough food to feed its people.

Written by Thomas Thurner. Professor Thurner is Research Chair for Innovation in Society at CPUT.

*This article was originally published in the Conversation.

Listeria and the controlling cavalry on the shop floor

The food safety scenario in South Africa has, by virtue of the sad consequences of the listeria outbreak, been given a violent shake-up. While much of the attention has been focussed on the companies potentially implicated it may also be helpful to consider the role played by the unseen cavalry which safeguards against such occurrences.

These role players are myriad in any production system and range from senior management to the person cleaning the floor. Every single employee in any food production and distribution facility has a role to play in ensuring the safety chain. More particularly, a critical part of these teams are the food scientists and technologists that we train here at CPUT and are employed by companies. They are key to implementing, managing and conducting internal audits of such systems. Obviously there are other auditing and verification layers but these staff members are where the rubber hits the road.

On a personal level, during my teaching career, I had always advised students about the fact that they are, in essence, the guardians of public health by ensuring that safe, nutritious food enters the consumption chain. The present disaster, for that is what it is, thus serves to illustrate this point. However, notwithstanding the crucial role played by such staff, they are sometimes not rewarded accordingly. My understanding of value for money in terms of a salary is that you are paid based on the risks that presents itself in meeting your job requirements. Ensuring such safety practices in this environment does carry many risks, with failure leading ultimately to that we are reading about today.

When engaging in casual or formal talks with many different role players, it does not seem as if this is always taken into account, and recognized as such, by all companies, both large and small. In fact, in instances, the quality management and control teams are sometimes deemed a necessary nuisance and are treated as such. Similarly with salaries paid. Young food technology graduates are place in positions with a large responsibility at minimal salaries to appease the gods of food safety while minimizing the payroll. On occasion, based on adverts I see and feedback from alumni, in some smaller companies especially, employees are kept on a short-term contract immediately prior to audits to fix a system and then dispensed with soon after the audit. And one could expand on this in detail were there space for it.

I have two problems with this:
a. By devaluing the crucial role played by such persons based on an inappropriate salary certainly has implications for food safety. The incumbent feels this lack of appreciation of their role and it may, especially for younger personnel, lead to stress and demoralization. This in turn could lead to shoddy workmanship.
b. Furthermore, fellow staff may also view the position of such an incumbent as being of lower value, concomitantly affecting adherence to standard operating procedures.

We need to ensure that personnel employed in such quality assurance and control positions must be made to feel valued, encouraging scrupulous attention to food safety detail. The reward is a better internal food safety system and better compliance with good manufacturing practice.

Furthermore, some form of certification or accreditation is needed to place additional value on such positions and qualifications of the personnel involved. This needs to go beyond the tertiary qualifications needed by such personnel, akin to registration of engineers with the Engineering Council of South Africa. One avenue that may be followed, but is not yet valued by the food industry, is registration with the South African Council of Natural Scientific Professions.

In terms of the bigger picture, a valued and happy workforce will inevitably lead to better outputs, including that of food safety. Recognize your personnel involved in this crucial role or else you may have to ‘fess up one day, heaven forbid!

Larry Dolley
Head of Department: Food Technology at CPUT

Making telescope control rooms user-friendly

The stars are an incredible source of information. Their patterns indicate when seeds should be sown or crops harvested. Their movements tell us that the seasons are changing.

But it’s not just amateur enthusiasts or farmers with no scientific training who watch the stars. Technology has redefined the professional field of astronomy. Pioneering telescope designs have allowed professional astronomers to unravel ever more complex questions about the universe and its mysteries.

These complicated telescopes require extremely complex control rooms. A control room is usually located in the same building as the telescope, though it is separate from the actual telescope. It tends to feature multiple computers, each with at least one screen, a mouse and a keyboard; radio monitors; weather instrument displays; comfortable chairs; a bathroom and sometimes a small kitchen. This is where the telescope operator and one or more astronomers will spend their days (and, given the nature of their work, nights too).

Research I conducted at the South African Large Telescope (SALT) illustrates just how hard it is to make increasingly complex telescope control rooms user-friendly.

SALT is located on a remote plateau with a high altitude and dark unpolluted skies, not far from the town of Sutherland in the Karoo. During the late 1980s, astronomers in South Africa found it increasingly difficult to keep up with the international astronomy community because the largest South African Astronomical Observatory telescope was only 1.9m.

Then some South African stakeholders had the unique opportunity to review the completed Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET) at the McDonald Observatory in Texas. This lead to the construction of the SALT: a larger, revised version of the HET with an 11m primary mirror. It’s been fully operational since 2011.

What I discovered during my research was that there are two different professional communities involved with SALT – and neither understands the other’s needs. Engineers developed the hardware that makes the SALT control room tick. They also provide ongoing maintenance. But the research emerging from that control room is conducted by astronomers. While the control room is very technically functional, the astronomers find it complex and counter-intuitive to their needs.

These insights confirm why the role of technical infrastructure and its impact on work flow require coherent design approaches. Designers develop intelligent adaptive systems that take users’ expectations into account, support individual differences and capture the users’ intent. There are entire companies dedicated to control room design – but very little research about how design can be applied to telescopes’ control rooms.

A new approach

My research aimed to improve the SALT control room’s usability. These sorts of practical interventions are important. We need to understand how people interact with the new technologies entering human work spaces so that efficient and productive control rooms can be designed.

The project had two sections. The first was a design ethnographic study. I wanted to observe work flows and talk to astronomers to understand their concerns and problems. This meant spending approximately 300 hours in the SALT control room.

After many hours observing and speaking with different astronomers and telescope operators in the control room, I identified some common complaints. The astronomers found it difficult to manage the use of multiple screens and input devices like keyboards and mouses. This set up made technical sense to the engineers, but resulted in a confusing, cluttered work area for the astronomers.

I explored different ways to address the problem. First, we combined all the elements into single units (so one monitor, keyboard and mouse per work station). Some people really liked this approach and found it worked for them. Others struggled to adapt.

I then tried a really simple approach: I colour coordinated each computer screen, mouse and keyboard with self-adhesive vinyl. This helped the astronomer to quickly identify which computer they were working on; before, they often grabbed the incorrect keyboard or mouse or tried to work across computer screens that were not connected.

Everyone was very happy with the results, and told me the colour coordination had dramatically reduced their frustration and actually improved productivity in the control room.

I made a few other small changes in consultation with the astronomers. We improved the telescope’s notification system, which is the software used to give the user an audio alert when it has completed a procedure. Some of the astronomers found it annoying and wanted the option to mute it in favour of an alternate notification method.

We also mounted computer screens on adjustable brackets so that users of different heights could set the monitor to their liking. This helped improve posture, which also contributed to productivity and satisfaction at work.

Happier work spaces

Much of what I did was rather intuitive and simple. But the result, in the long term, is an improved work space. It was also driven by the astronomers and that contributes to their sense of owning and enjoying the space they occupy every day.

Control rooms – whether they’re linked to nuclear power plantsair traffic centres or telescopes – are the interfaces of technology and human decision making. They work best when those working in them don’t have to worry about what’s happening on their desks and can focus on their work – and, in the case of the SALT astronomers, keep searching the stars for secrets.

Christopher Justin Hendrickse is a lecturer in Product/Industrial Design at Cape Peninsula University of Technology. The article first appeared in The Conversation.


Namibian crafters: can indigenous knowledge and commerce coexist?

The name Makalani is a nickname given to a tall species of palm tree – the Hyphaene persiana – by the local people living in the north-western parts of Namibia. The meaning of the name Makalani is difficult to trace, but has generally been adopted across Namibia. Also known as the vegetable ivory palm, the tree can bear up to 2,000 fruit over four seasons – each fruit housing a nut. Harvesting the hard, ivory-coloured seed doesn’t harm the tree.

The nuts are soft enough to shave away with steel tools yet hard enough to retain delicately carved detail. They can also be polished after being carved without losing the detail. These properties mimic those of ivory or shell which are used to make valued objects like cameos and buttons.

Objects made from the nuts are sold to tourists in Namibia and provide a valuable source of income in a country that struggles with high levels of unemployment.

And, as the example of the similar Tagua nut (the seed of the Phytelephas aequatorialis palm) in Ecuador shows, there is a rising demand for these products. This includes add-ons, like buttons, for the fashion industry. Called vegetable ivory, the Tagua nut can be shaped into buttons for fashion garments. Additional design features could include minor detailing in car interiors.

In my research I found that several other crafting techniques used on the Ecuadorian nut could also be used on the Makalani nuts too.

I partnered with a master crafter in a local community of Makalani crafters to establish a project to look at ways of developing the artisan craft based on rich indigenous knowledge. As an academic jewellery designer, I was able to offer different jewellery techniques. The master crafter’s indigenous knowledge was used to understand the material and what techniques worked best when carving the nut.

The project raised interesting questions about the use of indigenous knowledge and commercialisation.

Research through experiments

We experimented with various classic jewellery design techniques. These included sanding or dyeing of the material with locally accessible dyes. These dyes included vegetable dyes (beetroot) and a bright pink (magenta) dye known as Otjize. Otjize is a natural dye used to dye shells and fabric by the Oshiwambo women.

The Oshiwambo tribe live mainly in the northern part of Namibia. The colour of their traditional dress, known as an Ondelela, creates a distinct aesthetic. This dye is shrouded in mystery as none of the women could (or perhaps wanted to) share what the dye was made from.

The experimental sessions proved a great success. Many of the artisans were excited to learn more about the new techniques. Many had never seen the nuts dyed.

But I was concerned about the project’s inevitable impact on the social fabric of the communities. I questioned whether local crafts would not eventually dissolve when organised like an industry.

The master crafter voiced his concern around the exclusion of the crafters from the commercialisation of their craft. The development of their craft had resulted in marginalisation in the past.

To make such a co-creation project work, it was important that there wasn’t a hierarchy between the local crafters and myself. This helped establish trust and created an environment of learning through experimentation.

Each step was carefully documented. Great attention was paid to details that enabled a better understanding the needs of the craftsmen, and incorporated their suggestions. This helped to avoid the trap of bringing “design solutions” to a “local problem”.

But, for me, questions remained. Would gearing the art towards mass commercialisation threaten the craft practices which form the very essence of the indigenous knowledge embodied in their artefacts?

I was reassured by advice from Thomas Thurner, Research Chair for Innovation in Society at Cape Peninsula University of Technology:

Studies like this one provide valuable insights into how co-creation between indigenous knowledge and academic knowledge could work. Marrying both could yield new ways of making things work both in a sustainable manner and with a high social acceptance.

Is more really better?

Today the crafted product is being developed in its local setting, which is based on the crafters’ skills. One unresolved question was whether or not to pursue commercialising the crafters’ operations. The possibility of moving to manufacturing products was not something the crafters had entertained.

Rising production numbers would require industrial production methods. But this, in turn, would lead to the unavoidable detachment between the crafter and the final product. The most important question for the crafters was how to retain most of the benefits of sharing their indigenous knowledge, and how to ensure that they remained a crucial (and lucrative) part of the process.

Opening a commercial route would bring about an additional benefit – saving a depleting tree population. The north-central part of Namibia used to be dense with palms but many have been lost because of a rise in palm sap harvesting.

Written by Design lecturer, Michelle van Wyk. This Article first appeared in The Conversation.


Decolonised curriculum: A matter of mindfulness

As a lecturer in the Biological Sciences, I am aware that, despite the subject matter being conceptualised and delivered as such, many students in my university classroom maintain their suspicion of Evolution by Natural Selection. These students argue that the theory is no truer than any tale that indigenous knowledge provides to explain the existence of the myriad life forms on earth. While on one hand this is unsettling, especially coming from students of science, it does present evidence that indigenous knowledge remains firmly embedded in students’ minds, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This can be seen as an example of defiance against “colonial” knowledge. But do these students oppose evolution because the theory originates from colonials, or do they oppose it because they hold stronger beliefs in indigenous knowledge? In such cases, which do we favour when dealing with a decolonised curriculum, and how can we sort and teach fact from fiction if we want to decolonise, but remain progressive and true, in the spirit of education in general, and science in particular?

The questions and discussions around “decolonisation” have been trending in recent months. The discussions around this topic, particularly in the current South African context are often, understandably, emotionally-driven. The reality is that most have not paused to contemplate the topic or take a position any firmer than the mere moral high-ground. The chant of “Colonialism Must Fall” seems to permeate this discourse, but very few actually understand what this stands for. The topic has extended to decolonising education, but experts are yet to speak in a collective voice.

In order to reach a position in the most rational and critical way possible, we should firstly rid our approach of emotion and blame, and take a lucid stance to assess the available facts. One useful approach would be to frame the discourse in a natural and historical context. The discourse should differentiate between, at the very least, politics, knowledge, innovation and technology. In terms of colonial hegemony, what should we be opposed to?

To take the argument further, an historical perspective is useful. As far as the animal kingdom is concerned, humans as a species are the ultimate colonists. In order to ensure the longevity of our species and to satisfy our curiosity, humans have consistently ventured out of their homelands in search of food and resources. An imaginary group of Neanderthals would today be furiously stamping their feet, protesting the fact that homo sapiens colonists from a place on earth that we’ve agreed to call “Africa”, stormed into their lands, killed off their males and bred out their females, to completely annihilate them as a species, leaving today only scant archaeological traces and some incorporated DNA in our own bodies, as evidence of their existence.

Thus, out of Africa, modern man had begun the collective quest to colonise the planet. History attests to the many empires, kingdoms and civilisations that have risen and fallen since, each conquering and colonising the next in a never-ending cycle of dominance. Some groups of people did this as a show of military strength, religions did it to spread an ideology, empires did it to expand their rule, governments and corporations did it in a quest to acquire resources and wealth, and so it goes. All the while, new lands were either discovered or later acquired through sometimes questionable means from earlier colonists. This is humankind’s history, and thus we need to clarify what part of colonialism is in conflict with our judgements.

The manner in which many countries were colonised, physically, economically and emotionally enslaving the earlier population through superior technology, plundering resources, and spreading an ideology of superiority will always remain an unsightly scar in the fabric of human history. It is one that should definitely be rectified through education, restoration of justice, and mitigation of inequality to uplift the oppressed by those who benefited from the unjust and unequal system, and through reversing the emotional damage caused by decades of subjugation. This resonates very strongly in the South African context, and is the central unchallenged tenet of the decolonisation discourse.

That the colonial powers after the 14th and 15th century BCE Renaissance was European is indubium facto. However, it needs to be remembered that the body of knowledge at and subsequent to the Renaissance was cumulative. Philosophy was built upon by that of the earlier Greeks, mathematics by that of the Arabs and Indians, architecture from those of the Greeks and Romans, gunpowder from the Chinese, and so on. Notwithstanding the political ideology of colonialism, the accumulated knowledge then and now is a natural product of human curiosity, thinking and labour. It does not belong to any group of people, and thus has been inherited and distributed throughout the world, albeit sometimes through a hegemonic version of colonialism. This is to say that when Isaac Newton developed his Law of Gravitation, or when Robert Hooke peered into his microscope to discover the cell, or when Charles Darwin realised the ancestry and link among species, we can be sure that none of these British men sought to enslave people using this knowledge. It may have been their countrymen and governments who were malevolent colonists, but the knowledge of humankind cannot be “colonial”. It is the misuse of humankind’s beneficial, neutral knowledge that we can take objection to. For example, the rich world of literature can be selectively engineered as a powerful vehicle of propaganda, demonising or suppressing one race to the advantage and elevation of another. Developments in the fields of biology or chemistry by earnest, sincere scientists can be used to develop technologies that subjugate countries lacking in that knowledge and technology. This is the political layer that inexorably paints the knowledge of those living in colonial lands with a tainted brush. A distinction should be made between knowledge, in its pure form, that happens to be introduced by colonial powers, and political ideologies that accompany them.

When extended to education in a post-colonial and post-apartheid South Africa then, what does a decolonised curriculum entail? Surely the first aim would be to strip the curriculum of propaganda and all notions of European/British/Colonial grandeur at the expense of indigenous knowledge and dignity. We can agree that this is inarguable, and the supposedly superior ideologies of colonial powers that permeate higher education should be urgently ameliorated to reflect one that respects the dignity, rights, knowledge and contributions of all humankind. When it relates to science and technology, however, the decolonisation space appears murkier, and experts have trod carefully. The whole value of science lies in the search for, and validation of truths in the universe. Is it possible then, to decolonise truths? Should indigenous knowledge, if considered myth by scientific measure, be in a curriculum at all? Or should indigenous knowledge be incorporated in the curriculum because it presents an alternate view to colonial knowledge? Is science even considered “colonised knowledge”?

One approach to amalgamating indigenous and “colonial” knowledge systems in a comprehensive and holistic scientific curriculum would be to subject indigenous knowledge to scientific verification. Critics may view this as holding indigenous knowledge systems accountable and measurable against the scientific method. However, the scientific method is universally accepted as a means of indiscriminately verifying knowledge. This process of investigating truths in indigenous knowledge systems has been on-going for a few years to date. In research fields such as ethnobotany, a significant number of plant species used for traditional healing have been scientifically proven to contain elevated concentrations of metabolites that have therapeutic value. Herein lays the value of indigenous knowledge. Many of these metabolites have since been implemented in modern treatment applications. Such discoveries are and should be incorporated into the curriculum, to illustrate the value and contribution of indigenous knowledge, and to dispel the hitherto dominance of colonial knowledge. The objective should be to accumulate and amalgamate knowledge systems, to ultimately enhance thought and world views.

One would find difficulty sitting at a computer in a lit room, surrounded by the products of the minds of Boyle, Dalton, Tesla, Franklin, Turing and Newton, while simultaneously criticising colonial knowledge, when in fact it is the hegemonic colonial ideology that should be the focus of our contention. This said, one has to wonder about the implications and influence of human knowledge, as we collectively race to colonise planets other than our own. What will we learn, what will we realise when we get there, or will we as a species, continue to be insensitive colonisers?

Written by Muhammad Nakhooda. Nakhooda is a Senior Lecturer in the Biotechnology Program and serves on the Teaching & Learning, Language, and Curriculum Development Committees at the institution.

*This article was originally published in the Daily Maverick.



CPUT and the POPIA – What you need to know

The purpose of the POPIA is to ensure that all South African institutions conduct themselves in a responsible manner when collecting, storing, using, disclosing, processing and sharing another entity’s personal information by holding them accountable should they abuse or compromise your personal information in any way.

How does POPIA affect CPUT?

Under the POPIA, the university is legally required to comply with the POPIA principles. Under the POPIA, institutions are required to take reasonable steps to protect the personal information they hold from misuse and loss and from unauthorised access, modification or disclosure.

The POPIA legislation basically considers your personal information to be “precious goods” and therefore aims to bestow upon you, as the owner of your personal information, certain rights of protection and the ability to exercise control over:

  • when and how you choose to share your information (requires your consent)
  • the type and extent of information you choose to share (must be collected for valid reasons)
  • transparency and accountability on how your data will be used (limited to the purpose) and notification if/when the data is compromised
  • providing you with access to your own information as well as the right to have your data removed and/or destroyed should you so wish
  • who has access to your information, i.e. there must be adequate measures and controls in place to track access and prevent unauthorised people, even within the same company, from accessing your information
  • how and where your information is stored (there must be adequate measures and controls in place to safeguard your information to protect it from theft, or being compromised)
  • the integrity and continued accuracy of your information (i.e. your information must be captured correctly and once collected, the institution is responsible to maintain it)

What is “personal information”?

Examples of “personal information” for an individual could include:

  • Identity and/or passport number
  • Date of birth and age
  • Phone number/s (including mobile phone number)
  • Email address/es
  • Online/Instant messaging identifiers
  • Physical address
  • Gender, Race and Ethnic origin
  • Photos, voice recordings, video footage (also CCTV), biometric data
  • Marital/Relationship status and Family relations
  • Criminal record
  • Private correspondence
  • Religious or philosophical beliefs including personal and political opinions
  • Employment history and salary information
  • Financial information
  • Education information
  • Physical and mental health information including medical history, blood type, details on your sex life
  • Membership to organisations/unions

Does POPIA only apply to individual’s personal information?

It is important to note though that this right to protection of “personal information” is not just applicable to a natural person (i.e. an individual) but any legal entity, including companies and also communities or other legally recognised organisations. All of these entities are considered to be “data subjects” and afforded the same right to protection of their information. So this means that while you as a consumer now have more rights and protection, you and your company/organisation are considered “responsible parties” and have the same obligation to protect other parties’ personal information. As a company this would include protecting information about your employees, suppliers, vendors, service providers, business partners, etc.

Written by Gugulethu Ndenge, Records and Archives Manager and Adv. Mbongeni Mateta, Compliance Manager in the Registrar’s Office.

McDonald’s has been forced to make a U-turn on battery eggs. Here’s how

South Africans have been known to be an activist bunch – in recent times there have been a number of high profile campaigns, often with varying degrees of success. These include the #feesmustfall protests against high tuition fees on the country’s campuses, protests against toll roads and ongoing service delivery demonstrations.

But protesters – even successful ones – could learn a thing or two from a small, under-reported, but highly effective campaign against a powerful multinational fastfood chain. Yolanda Güse, a Master’s student at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, lobbied support against the burger and fast food chain McDonald’s South Africa. And won.

It started with animal protection group Beauty without Cruelty South Africa. They informed their members through their monthly newsletters about McDonald’s cruelty in using battery caged chickens to produce the eggs used in their Breakfast McMuffin meals.

A battery cage is a wire box, the size of an A4 piece of paper. A chicken spends her entire life in this cage producing eggs. The animals suffer from stress as well as physical harm, including bone weakness and breakage, feather loss and diseases.

Beauty without Cruelty South Africa expressed its concern that while McDonald’s in both the US and Canada agreed to phase out the practice, McDonald’s South Africa hadn’t followed suit. In a statement the local affiliate responded:

We take note of the moves made by our USA and Canadian counterparts, and though we are exploring the viability of expanding McDonald’s cage-free policy to South Africa, we cannot at this stage make a similar commitment as the one made by McDonald’s USA and McDonald’s Canada.

The campaign

As a member of Beauty without Cruelty SA, Güse took up the plight against McDonald’s. In her petition motivation she highlighted a statement from the South Africa CEO, Greg Solomon, and the Corporate Affairs Director, Sechaba Motsielo, which stated:

We absolutely do not condone the cruel treatment of animals by our suppliers. Yet they continued to use battery eggs.

Güse told me in an interview that her love for chickens and having them as pets heightened her desire to pursue this cause.

My chickens are smart and quite engaging. They also enjoy roaming outdoors in the sun, so the idea of having them stuffed in a small wired cage and enduring the harshness that accompanies such a life is unbearable.

With the support of Beauty without Cruelty SA, Güse attracted the backing of other animal protection organisations. These included the United Front 4 Animals, Animal Voice (the official South African representative of Compassion in World Farming) and South African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute, as well as individuals.

Greater Than, a Cape Town based public relations agency, took on the campaign pro bono and a number of South African celebrities publicised their support in the media. More than 18 000 people signed the campaign’s petition.

Güse was interviewed on various media platforms, including television and radio talk shows. She also actively shared her views on social media. It got the public interested.

Her passion and perseverance finally paid off.

On 14 November 2016 Güse and her team received news that McDonald’s SA had agreed to stop the harvesting of caged eggs and committed itself, over time, to using 100% caged free eggs. It will start phasing in caged-free eggs at all its restaurants this year and has undertaken to complete the process by 2025. This is because the policy will mean a complete restructuring of the current egg-farming industry.

This is more than just a victory for Güse. Not only are cage free eggs a healthier option but jobs will be created. Farmers will now need to adapt their cages and farms to the new requirements of cage free eggs.

In a Fortune article after McDonald’s US decision to go cage free American poultry farmer Greg Herbruck said transitioning to cage free egg production meant a lot more staff would be required to ensure that birds were socially placed as hens tend to bully each other. There’s also a pecking order of domination which has an impact on the production of eggs. This means that hens require daily checks and need to be trained to lay their eggs in allocated slots.

All of this suggests that the current status quo in egg farming will change. Farmers will be expected to train staff to ensure a successful transition, leading to new skills and job creation.

Lessons to learn

Why was the campaign so successful? Some key factors guaranteed its success. With refining and adapting, they can work for various activist activities:

  • Effective research was done to ensure that sufficient evidence and credibility of the campaign was established and communicated.
  • A clear and definable objective was set.
  • The common purpose of the campaign was communicated in all messages.
  • The campaign activities were designed to share and repeat the messages.
  • A spokesperson was selected and represented the campaign.
  • Contact was made with the influential leaders of the organisation to ensure that the campaign message was received.
  • Relationships were built with the media and other relevant stakeholders.
  • Public and celebrity support was rallied through various media platforms.
  • Those supporting the campaign were given continuous feedback.
  • Effective support was garnered, leaders were influenced and the campaign had an impact on the viability of the brand.


By  (Public Relations Senior Lecturer and Programme Coordinator in the Media Department)

The article first appeared in The Conversation. Click here to view the article.



Born into revolution: reflections on a radical teacher’s life


Alie Fataar was a teacher.

Perhaps that doesn’t seem glamorous and very important. But Fataar, who would have turned 100 this month, is one of the many South African unknowns whose life and work can point the country today in a direction it ought to follow.

Fataar and his comrades developed an unparalleled educational project during the darkest days of colonialism and apartheid. Their work from about the 1940s explicitly debunked the pseudo-scientific racist notion that intelligence and human worth were unequal by virtue of physical characteristics such as skin colour and the texture of one’s hair.

In the 27 years between starting his career as a teacher and fleeing into exile from the apartheid government, Fataar profoundly influenced five generations of oppressed pupils. He instilled in them the virtues of critical citizenship and a profound, articulated anti-racism. His mantra, and that of the progressives he worked alongside, was: “There is only one race – the human race.”

Fataar was the subject of my PhD thesis. Why does he interest me so much and why am I now writing this reflection on a life that has been relegated to the margins of South Africa’s education resistance history? Quite simply, because he exemplifies the type of teacher South Africa sorely requires today if its classrooms are to be used to develop a new generation of critical, engaged students.

Fataar and his comrades showed that South Africa needs teachers who know that teaching is, by definition, an acutely political act. It requires a critical outlook that is independent, fearless and sustained.

Who was Alie Fataar?

Alie Fataar was born on March 26 1917 in Claremont, a working class suburb in Cape Town. 1917 was a significant year: in Russia, the revolution was to shape the world in significant ways. World War 1, the “Great War”, continued to maim and kill millions. South Africa was a colony of Great Britain, which introduced apartheid-style legislation that oppressed the country’s not-white citizens. In 1918, Nelson Mandela was born.

Fataar was the youngest of 12 children. His father, Salamudien Fataar, was a tailor at Garlicks, a fine goods retailer and his mother, Janap Moosa, was a washerwoman.

Fataar’s father was not literate, but the young man was obsessive about reading and progressing through education. When he enrolled at Claremont’s Livingstone High School in 1929 he continued a pattern established during his primary school years, placing him at the top of the class.

Livingstone shaped Alie Fataar. There he encountered soaring intellects in teachers like Hassan Abrahams and E.C. Roberts. They were members of the Teachers’ League of South Africa (TLSA) and declared unequivocally that their students were anybody’s equal – simply by virtue of being human. This thinking was revolutionary at a time when South Africans who were not white were considered and treated as inferior.

After school, in 1935, Fataar enrolled at Cape Town’s Zonnebloem College of Education. In 1937, he landed a post at his alma mater, Livingstone High School. As a senior English teacher he revelled in the responsibility of moulding his students into people who rejected an imposed inferior status, and who aspired to actualise their full human potential. Fataar was banned in 1961 under the Suppression of Communism Act and was no longer allowed to play any role in organisations like the TLSA, African Peoples’ Democratic Union of Southern Africa and the Non-European Unity Movement.

He kept teaching while under surveillance by the notorious special branch. He was accused of breaching his banning order several times and fled into exile in 1965.

Between then and his return to South Africa in 1993, Fataar lived in three newly decolonised African states: Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe. He initially struggled to find work but then began a “second life” in education. He taught in all three countries and worked for both the Zambian and Zimbabwean governments as an education specialist. He eventually retired when he was 71, having served education in Africa for an astounding 51 years.

He was 76 when he returned to South Africa in 1993. He engaged robustly with public education, globalisation and the militarisation of public life through newspaper articles, letters to the editor and community radio forums that had been established in the post-apartheid era. His appetite for political debate and engagement was not dulled by age.

Radicalising teaching

Fataar was not the only radical thinker and educator influenced by the Teachers’ League of South Africa.

The organisation emerged in the first decades of the 20th century as an assimilationist “coloured” political entity. The concept “coloured”, like most racial tags, is shrouded in controversy even today. Here, for analytical purposes, it indicates the politically-inscribed community that emerged from the colonial sexual encounter with the enslaved, indigenous population at the Cape. This “community” was labelled “coloured” by the colonial and later apartheid regimes.

In the late 1930s literature from the Russian revolution was finding its way into Cape Town’s progressive intellectual circles. The league was captured by young radicals. The radicalised league and its teachers became explicitly and organisationally committed to the creation of a new world. Through their teaching, they aimed to undo the violence of the colonial and later the formal apartheid education dispensations.

It was a revolutionary moment in South Africa’s making. These intellectuals created the vision of a new, just society through writing, publishing, debate, and a fierce contestation of ideas both against the enemy, and within their own ranks.

Historians and public intellectuals such as Ciraj Rassool have written about this project that aimed at nothing less than “taking a nation to school”.

This was arguably the most contested and creative political space and period in South Africa’s history. But its details are not included in post-apartheid’s struggle narratives – and so these radical teachers are not known. Yet it’s they who created a fierce counter-educational narrative to the dehumanising tenets of colonial and apartheid education.

And their work remains relevant today.

The ideals of a teacher born 100 years ago need to be inserted into the country’s official narratives. Fataar, who died on June 9 2005, left a legacy of teaching as an act of defiance in the face of intellectual dishonesty. Quality teaching, he taught us, is teaching with a social justice orientation, geared towards the creation of a radically new society.

By  a researcher in the Faculty of Education. The article first appeared in The Conversation