Original Research

Does ‘African mathematics’ facilitate access to mathematics? Towards an ongoing critical analysis of ethnomathematics in a South African context

Kai Horsthemke, Marc Schäfer
Pythagoras | Issue 65 | a85 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/pythagoras.v0i65.85 | © 2007 Kai Horsthemke, Marc Schäfer | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 14 October 2007 | Published: 14 October 2007

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Kai Horsthemke, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa
Marc Schäfer, Rhodes University, South Africa

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Abstract

Mosibudi Mangena, the Minister of Science and Technology, said in an address to the Annual Congress of the South African Mathematical Society at the University of the Potchefstroom, November 2, 2004: “There is one thing we need to address before anything else. We need to increase the number of young people, particularly blacks and women, who are able to successfully complete the first course in Mathematics at our universities.” How is this to  be achieved? A popular trend involves a call for the introduction and incorporation of so-called ethnomathematics, and more particularly ‘African mathematics’, into secondary and tertiary curricula. Although acknowledging the obvious benefits of so-called ethnomathematics, this paper critically analyses three aspects of ethnomathematics that have been neglected in past critiques. Our focus is not on the relationship as such between ethnomathematics and mathematics education. Our critique involves (1) epistemological and logical misgivings, (2) a new look at practices and skills, (3) concerns about embracing ‘African mathematics’ as valid and valuable – just because it is African. The first concern is about problems relating to the relativism and appeals to cultural specificity that characterise ethnomathematics, regarding mathematical knowledge and truth. The second set of considerations concern the idea  that not all mathematical practices and skills are necessarily culturally or socially embedded. With regard to the validity and viability of ‘African mathematics’, our misgivings not only concern the superficial sense of ‘belonging’ embodied in the idea of a uniquely and distinctly African mathematics, and the threat of further or continuing marginalisation and derogation, but the implicitly (self-)demeaning nature of this approach. This paper serves as a reminder that a critical position in the deliberations of ethnomathematics needs to be sustained. It warns against the bandwagon syndrome in a society where political correctness has become a prominent imperative. This paper is framed by many unanswered questions in an attempt to inspire and sustain a critical discourse in the ethnomathematics movement.

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