Linda Nordling Probes the Transformation of South African Science

Linda Nordling Courtesy of Linda Nordling

While reporting for Nature about the decolonization of science in post-Apartheid South Africa, science journalist Linda Nordling found herself in an uncomfortable spot. Nordling, a native of Sweden, had long lived in the United Kingdom before making South Africa her home more than a decade ago. She was passionately interested in efforts to understand and extinguish the remaining colonial influences and prejudices from South Africa’s academic institutions. She believed the story of that ongoing transformation deserved to be told.

But Nordling worried whether it was right for a white journalist from a former colonial power to tell the story—in a magazine that was part of the colonial history of science—of the decolonization of South African academe. She worried that South Africans, including her sources, might accuse her of having appropriated their culture. As Nordling worked through her doubts, she found herself coming up against accepted ideas of objectivity and influence and working harder than she ever had in order to understand the context of race and culture and power relations.

Nordling’s story, “How Decolonization Could Reshape South African Science,” was published in Nature on February 7, 2018. Here, she tells TON editor-at-large Jeanne Erdmann about confronting her doubts and about becoming the “custodian” of someone else’s story. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)


What made you decide to write this story?

After I came down here in 2006, I realized you can’t live in South Africa without quickly becoming aware about justice, about who gets to speak, and about who gets to tell the story. In the arts and humanities and some social sciences, it’s fairly straightforward, but I was struggling with what decolonization means in the sciences. In January 2017, I took a university summer course on decolonization. By then, we’d had about a year of protests in South Africa. At the start, the protests were to remove a statue of the [British] colonizer Cecil John Rhodes from a prominent plinth on the University of Cape Town campus. Once that was successfully achieved, the movement grew to other campuses around the country to include other challenges facing students. Foremost among them were high university fees, but also decolonization. The students called for free, decolonized education.

A few months after the summer course, I attended a seminar on decolonization and Africanizing medicine, and that’s when I first heard Wanga Zembe-Mkabile, the social-policy researcher in my lede. She told the story of a project that involved taking food inventories of participants’ cupboards, many of whom were embarrassed because there was little or no food in their pantries. I started to feel like there was something there. At this point I decided to pitch a news-analysis story on decolonizing medicine to a publication other than Nature. The pitch was accepted.

Wanga Zembe-Mkabile’s story seems to have been critical to your reporting. How did you get her on board?

I interviewed Wanga for that story a week or so after the pitch was accepted. At the time, she was concerned about how she would be portrayed, and I said I’d be happy to share a rough draft because it was a condition for her to participate.

So you felt like the ethical imperative to be sure that you were not unfairly co-opting her story was more important than the typical proscription against sharing copy with sources?

That’s exactly it. It was a sine qua non that she asked for. I did explain to the editor of the news analysis that I wanted to share Wanga’s copy because of the sensitivity and personal nature of her story, and the editor said it was fine.


“In order to keep [Wanga] in my story, I had to regain her trust. I entered into a dialogue with her about my use of language. I learnt a lot, not least to listen and to second-guess my instincts.”


But when I shared the paragraphs I’d written for my draft, [Wanga] did not like it and asked for it to change or to withdraw from the article. Her objections were mainly over tone and turns of phrase like using research “subjects” instead of “participants” or “volunteers,” or the word “pitiful” when describing research participants’ empty cupboards. To her, this signaled that I was out of touch with the things I was writing about—dignity and decolonization.

That was quite stressful because she was my star witness. It was her story that inspired both the news analysis and eventually the Nature feature, and I thought she was at the heart of this story.

I had to go back to the drawing board and think about what she had actually told me. And I realized that I had filled in gaps according to my understanding, and that I had used words that to me made the copy more dramatic—but to her ears sounded disrespectful. It set back the trust I had gained in our face-to-face interview, obviously. So in order to keep her in my story, I had to regain her trust. I entered into a dialogue with her about my use of language. I learnt a lot, not least to listen and to second-guess my instincts.

In the end that news-analysis story was killed, for reasons that had nothing to do with my interactions with Wanga. It was simply that the story I felt I could write was not the story my editor wanted. The pitch was timed on a promise by the South African Medical Research Council to publish a decolonization strategy before the end of the year. That strategy hasn’t seemed to have materialized yet, so it was a bad peg at best. The fact that the strategy didn’t seem to be as solid a peg as I’d hoped was probably the main reason for the news analysis not working out.

Once that commission was no more, I was free to explore Wanga’s story without a particular format in mind. I remember I sat down one afternoon and wrote it like the beginning of a book, or a long magazine profile. I did it because I felt there was so much in it, because I needed to process it—to understand what it was about it that gripped me so much—but also to atone for my first cack-handed attempt at translating it onto the page. I ended up with about 2,000 words of fairly florid prose, and I sent it straight to Wanga. She loved it. That restored my confidence in my ability to write about decolonization.

How did you end up pitching Nature?

I never sent Brendan [Maher, a features editor at Nature] a proper pitch for the feature. Sometime after the news analysis got canned I talked to him about it on the phone, and he asked me to send what I had. I think I explained to him all the challenges I had encountered trying to follow the story, and about my fears about whether or not I was the person to write it. I think that all intrigued him. But I got the feeling that he also fell for Wanga’s story.


“I’m not sure [the story] would have had the impact it had if there hadn’t been that slip in trust at the very start of the process, and the regaining of it over time.”


He said to send the notes I had. Besides Wanga’s story, I also had snippets from interviews with others that I had conducted for the news analysis. But in my mind, the story had by now evolved into something that wasn’t just about medicine, but about research in general. I think it was Wanga’s story—especially the quotes I had from her in my long write-up—that enticed him. Things like [Zembe-Mkabile’s statement that] “We were fast asleep. At least now, students are alert,” [a comment] about the difference between her experience as an undergraduate student at a South African university in the 90s compared with students now.

In that sense, the story as it appeared a few months later in Nature had its roots in my interview with Wanga, and I’m not sure it would have had the impact it had if there hadn’t been that slip in trust at the very start of the process, and the regaining of it over time.

I did not share the copy for Nature [with Wanga], except for checking quotes. Hardly any of that long-form write-up [that I sent her before I sent it to Nature] survives in the final Nature story. It was just the space in which I proved to Wanga that I did understand her story, and that she could trust me with it.

For the Nature piece, how did you get from a story of one researcher’s unease with rooting around in people’s kitchen cupboards to a more textured story about a movement in South African science? What questions and themes did you want to explore?

When you mention decolonizing science, people usually start with: “How? How do you do it?” That’s certainly what drove me to take the summer course in decolonizing knowledge at UCT [University of Cape Town] in early 2017.

I spent every night for a week listening to epistemological explanations and historical accounts about the creation of knowledge, and by the end of it I still was not much closer to an answer. It was obvious how to do it, and why it was needed, in subjects like history or law. But when I asked my lecturer “But how about science?” he got a gleam in his eye. A gleam that suggested to me that many people—perhaps white people like me in particular—had asked the same question of him before, often with the intention to undermine his logic. I bristled at that, because I didn’t feel like I had an agenda—I wanted to understand.

Then, when I listened to Wanga speak a few months later, a first puzzle piece fell into place. I felt her story was a key, but not one that unlocked the “how” question. Rather, it was about how it feels to be colonized, and how to engage with part of yourself that was trained under a colonized system.


“I’ve spoken about it to many other journalists, and I feel quite a lot of people have the same feelings of anxiety about telling someone else’s story—what gives me the right?”


It took me a while to understand this, but once I did, I decided that instead of chasing examples of how to decolonize science in different disciplines, I could speak to the generation of scientists that trained in South Africa who were children under Apartheid, but who trained in science in the early years of democracy. They were not the protesting students of today—but they will carry the brunt of the leadership roles in universities as South Africa transitions into a reality where the majority of researchers are black, not white.

That gave me a cohort to work with. Their views on decolonization were fresh, and intuitive, not bogged down in epistemological jargon. It felt fresh, and it felt globally relevant, even though it focused on happenings far away from the white-hot centers of global research in Europe, North America, and Asia.

How did you get past your own discomfort about being the right person for this story?

I had huge misgivings about whether I should even be allowed to write this article, not just as a white person but as a white, non–South African. For a long time, I left it thinking I was actually not the person, and then I would get dragged back in, and then I’d think, “I can’t do this, I’m going to get nailed locally.” I now consider this my home. I didn’t want to be colonial, and that was a big fear that permeated the entire process and influenced some of the things that I did, such as mind-dumping my interview and sending it to the source, which is something I wouldn’t normally do, but I needed that reassurance.

I’ve spoken about it to many other journalists, and I feel quite a lot of people have the same feelings of anxiety about telling someone else’s story—what gives me the right? With this story in particular, it brought it to a head because not only was I writing about Africans, I was writing about race. I was writing about the experience of people and their reaction to a culture that I in some way consider my own, having come from Sweden.

For me that was one of the really big personal challenges, just to feel like I was allowed to give myself permission to write this.

The theme of inclusion and having a voice runs strong in your story. How did you decide what other voices, in addition to Zembe-Mkabile’s, to include?

Wanga is a social scientist, and I was keen to get some lab people, but deciding who to speak to was incredibly difficult. For example, I found that few scientists had thought about decolonization, or wanted to engage with it. Perhaps they thought that it was something that didn’t apply in the sciences, or they were afraid of saying the wrong thing. Many struggled with the how question, like I did. For my purposes I needed people who were happy to open up about how they viewed their careers, their training, their past, and their future. It was quite a big ask, and it required a high level of reflectivity among the people I chose to feature.

I spent a lot of energy and time second guessing everything, whether I was making a complicated mess and whether I was going to be criticized for omitting certain people and including certain people.

Early on, I decided I wanted the main characters to be black. I had a friend, one of my sanity readers, go over the story, and she asked why there weren’t any white people in it. She thought that was problematic. I think my friend saw in my omitting white people from the article a sort of value judgment, that I was suggesting that the work involved in decolonizing the academy would and should fall to black people. I was more interested in the experiences of people who went from the experience of not having access to having access. You can totally be into decolonization if you aren’t black—in fact, it’s a racially diverse field of study—but I was the most curious about how people belonging to formerly disadvantaged groups under Apartheid, and particularly black Africans, related to the discussion. I also wanted to make sure I spoke to mostly black South Africans, rather than scientists from other parts of the continent who may not have grown up in Apartheid.


“I spent a lot of energy and time second guessing everything, whether I was making a complicated mess and whether I was going to be criticized for omitting certain people and including certain people.”


In the end, I was surprised that white young scientists in South Africa felt the article spoke to them too. It seemed that Wanga’s story about belonging, about being an “insider/outsider” scientist [that is, as a black South African who was trained in England and was, as the article notes, “the product of a system shaped by and for white Europeans”], resonated with many young scientists regardless of their provenance. Which might say something about generational shifts and characteristics of young scientists worldwide.

One other thing I wanted to raise in the story is that black women are the most under-represented social group in South African science, and the biggest group population-wise—but they hold the smallest share of science decisions. Yet I really ended up with all these women.

Did you intend from the start to include mostly women?

I didn’t set out to only find women and I really struggled with finding South African men who were ready to open up about their personal engagement with decolonization, about belonging in science, about coming from Apartheid, and about navigating the academic space as people of color in new South Africa. (Now I know where I should have looked—there’s a black caucus at UCT that I should have contacted.) I did reach out to a couple of men who have been very involved in decolonization, and they didn’t want to talk about it yet. I met [Siyanda] Makaula through a friend at a conference. I was mentioning my story about decolonization, and she went, “Oh, my God, you have to speak with this guy.” It was pure serendipity.

What was hardest about putting the story together?

The biggest challenge all the way through was how to structure the story. Brendan and I talked about doing a kind of oral history, which I wasn’t quite sure about because I wasn’t sure what it meant. Even though we decided to stick to a normal, structured feature with a beginning, middle, and end, thinking about the story as an oral history gave us a bit more space for the personal narratives as something that needed to drive the story. This was very important because the more I tried to pinpoint [what decolonizing science means], the more I felt I was getting sidetracked into emotions. And then it dawned on me that decolonization was more a feeling, rather than something that happened to a place, or to the rewriting of a textbook.


“The more I tried to pinpoint [what decolonizing science means], the more I felt I was getting sidetracked into emotions. And then it dawned on me that decolonization was more a feeling, rather than something that happened to a place, or to the rewriting of a textbook.”


When I started to think about it that way, suddenly I felt like I could write about people’s stories and feelings, and that could be enough, rather than to try and pinpoint what decolonization means for geology, or for medicine, or for rewriting curricula, because it’s not there yet. Whenever I tried to do that it felt like I was veering off course. I kept having to remind myself that the “how” was intimately connected to the emotions expressed by my sources—that decolonization was something that happens inside. A changed curriculum can help, or having a broader racial representation among teachers and research mentors. But the change, the click, is internal. It’s about how you see yourself in the world.

That decision made the structure fall into place.

How did the editing process go?

What was interesting in the editorial process with Nature [was that] time and again, people wanted to push it back towards a piece that explained how to decolonize science. I had to keep pulling it back. It was easy in that I couldn’t tell the “how” story! Often I simply had to say, “I can’t do more than this.” That meant leaving some of the editors hanging.

Still, I actually feel there are some pretty good “hows” in there—for example, when one source says decolonization will happen in the mind, and how it’s about what is taught, and by whom, and the examples they give. I think that is pretty concrete. Obviously you could be more granular if you chose a particular discipline, but I don’t think there is no guidance in the article about how to begin decolonizing science.

What I found really interesting is that there was a generational division in how people viewed the story. Many senior people felt it was too thin on detail on the “how,” and that the case studies were chosen because they all work in science areas that are easy to decolonize. But younger people did not seem to see an issue with that at all. They seemed to feel liberated by how it described the interface between science and identity, and the role of the scientist as a social construct, and how that doesn’t have to be at odds with doing rigorous science, or require that you have to “start over” with science.

There were also editors who called for the contrary view, from people saying we don’t need to decolonize science, which Brendan and I chose not to include. For me it was quite obvious why you might argue that science is universal and doesn’t need decolonization, so we didn’t include a person just to get the opposing view.

Earlier you mentioned asking a “sanity reader” to go over the story. What was your goal there? And was that a formal sensitivity read that Nature encouraged or required?

The sanity check was to make sure none of the nearly finished copy was offensive to a black South African reader. It was a friend who is a civil servant in the country’s science department. It was something Nature encouraged, yes. Not required! Nature circulated it widely among its editors too for sensitivity input.

Was there anything in the reporting or writing process that you wish you’d done differently?

There were parts of it, especially in the Siyanda [Makaula] interview, that [were] a little legally problematic. Siyanda was very angry, and I wrote the anger, and the editors felt like some of this was a little bit legally difficult. He was talking about specific incidents in his past, which implicated people who could have been identified easily. Part of me regrets that we couldn’t reflect more of this anger in the article, but it didn’t necessarily drive the story forward. It was more about past injustices, and I can see why the Nature editors deemed it not essential. I also think if that part had been essential to the story, it wouldn’t have been changed.

How did your own attitudes evolve as you worked on this story?

This article was empowering for me, but it was also very humbling. It made me even more aware of the pitfalls we risk falling into, and what we owe to people whose cultures we don’t share when we take on guardianship of their stories and become custodians of their stories. This type of story doesn’t translate easily and requires a lot of reflection and engagement.

How has the story been received?

It’s been overwhelmingly positive, and not just from Africans but from people of color globally, and also even young white South Africans. Scientists, especially women, have come to me and said that they also feel alienated. The older generation is still very unfulfilled by this story; they still don’t quite understand what it means to decolonize science—[for example,] how you do it with molecular biology.

For me, it ended up being positive, even though it was emotionally draining and very difficult. I am still not sure if I am the one to write this. But I went from thinking “why me?” to “why not me?”


Jeanne Erdmann
Jeanne Erdmann Carl Erdmann

TON cofounder and editor-at-large Jeanne Erdmann is an award-winning freelance health-and-science writer based in Missouri. Her writing has been published in Nature Medicine, Nature, Women’s Health, Discover, The Washington Post, Slate, Aeon, and elsewhere. She is on the board of the Association of Health Care Journalists. Follow her on Twitter @jeanne_erdmann.

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