Indigenous knowledge has future potential for research, development, and innovation.
We adopted the Indigenous Knowledge Systems Policy in November 2004, following which the DST established an office (NIKSO) to protect, develop and manage indigenous knowledge systems.
NIKSO recognises that skills development at grassroots level needs to equip communities for sustainable livelihoods and entrepreneurial opportunities. It structures initiatives to add value to existing community knowledge and skills, as opposed to using preconceived, interventionist methods.
There is a focus on including community members, indigenous knowledge holders and practitioners when designing and implementing projects.
Our bio-economy strategy, launched last year, focuses on the development of biotechnologies in three key sectors - agriculture, health and industry - and prioritises specific fields that should be developed in each of these.
One of our greatest assets is our rich biological diversity. Our country is the world's third most biologically diverse country and is home to almost 10% of the world's known plant species and 15% of all known coastal marine species.
With such rich biodiversity, South Africa has a scientific competitive advantage in the sphere of IKS.
About 24,000 plant species exist in the country of which 4,000 are used to manufacture medicines. About 20,000 tons of medicinal plants are exported from South Africa each year. Current initiatives for harvesting indigenous knowledge promise major benefits for economic development, medicine and exports.
The oral nature of indigenous knowledge has also resulted in widespread misuse, misappropriation and biopiracy. This has been seen recently in the pelargonium, rooibos and honeybush cases. This is why effective strategies must be formulated and implemented to ensure the future protection, development and management of our IKS.
One of these strategies is the documentation and recording of IKS. The urgency of documenting indigenous knowledge in South Africa - and we are documenting through our recordal system - is underscored by the fact that we often lose our respected elders, before their indigenous knowledge has been recorded.
We envisage that soon all nine provinces will host a centre to facilitate the capturing, cataloguing, validation, preservation and dissemination of indigenous knowledge in participating communities.
The DST has supported IKS-based research and development for almost 10 years now. It has funded IKS research chairs, supported PhD, Masters, and Honours students. It has also provided leadership in various advocacy and public awareness initiatives.
In 2007, we initiated the IKS Bioprospecting and Product Development Platform to identify and add value to products, processes and services inspired by indigenous knowledge holders and practitioners.
In order to encourage collaboration, we included various indigenous knowledge-based communities of practice, universities, science councils and government departments in our plans. We have successfully facilitated collaboration between previously antagonistic and competitive stakeholders in a partnership model unique to South Africa.
As part of mainstreaming IKS, the bio-prospecting platform has focused on African traditional medicines, nutraceuticals and cosmeceuticals. The development and manufacture of high-end products in these three areas are intended to meet both the economic and the social needs of the stakeholders. They will assist in alleviating poverty through the creation of businesses, and improving people's lives by developing affordable medicines based on indigenous knowledge.
The IKS Bioprospecting and Product Development Platform provides the basis for ongoing work in the areas of medicines, health, nutrition, food technology, agroprocessing, cosmetics and beauty.
That's not all.
In line with our IKS-Based Technological Innovation Vision 2030, we have strengthened our human capital and research and development capabilities through the establishment of the IKS-based Research and Innovation institutes and Centres of Competence in IKS. We also have an IKS-Based Technological Innovation unit. The core function of this unit is to support IKS-based and bioeconomy-related research, development and innovation initiatives.
These are some of the interventions we have undertaken as a country.
We are doing more.
The DST has developed a regulatory framework for the protection, promotion, and management of indigenous knowledge and written it into an IK Bill. The Bill creates provisions to legitimise indigenous knowledge on its own terms by creating an authoritative enabling environment for the internal development and articulation of all the domains of indigenous knowledge, as well as establishing it as a source of innovation for commercialisation.
The IK Bill is going through Parliament. The Portfolio Committee on Science and Technology has held public hearing and undertaken oversight visits and met with a number of holders and practitioners in Pretoria, Moruleng, Durban and Oudtshoorn in the Western Cape.
Allow to make a number of observations.
First, a reason for a lack of clarity about the rationale for protection of indigenous knowledge for the future generation stems from the different meanings given to the concept of protection.
Some understand this concept in the context of intellectual property rights, where protection essentially means to exclude the unauthorised use by third parties.
Others regard protection as a tool to preserve indigenous knowledge from uses that may erode it or negatively affect the life or culture of the communities that have developed and applied it. Protection here has a more positive role in supporting indigenous knowledge-based communities’ livelihoods and cultures, as proposed by the Organisation of African Unity’s (OAU’s) Model Law.
It is within this context that the Department developed a Bill for the protection of indigenous knowledge for the generation future.
Second, the protection of IK is a continuous struggle that includes redress of all the past injuries committed in the form of exploitation, misappropriation and misuse of IK.
For an example, communities’ knowledge has been unjustly exploited by opportunists without any form of beneficiation to the owners of the knowledge. Some communities have sold their knowledge without them realizing that by accepting money, they are actually selling off their national treasure. Generational knowledge cannot be for sale while holders are still faced with poverty and underdevelopment.
Third it is generally uncontested that women are anchors of IK epistemologies and that they have a central role to play in the development of IK. Elders have been vanguards of IK, but if that knowledge is not transferred to the younger generation, it is certainly not sustainable and is likely to be lost forever. Technological and innovative advancements resonate with young people. It forms part of their life style and therefore with proper polices in place development of IK should be at the heart of the youth who would then spearhead the new era of IK as a knowledge system.
In closing, let me say we have already started to challenge the current dominant western research approaches in some fields of health care - to cancer treatment, dietary care and anti-addictive therapy.
IKS offers an opportunity to explore avenues for innovation and commercialisation in order to contribute towards addressing the triple challenges we face of unemployment, inequality, and poverty.