German Chancellor Angela Merkel visits Future Africa campus for talk with UP students

Posted on February 08, 2020

Growth in small enterprises and the private sector is key to solving the unemployment crisis facing South Africa’s youth, German Chancellor Dr Angela Merkel said in a conversation with University of Pretoria (UP) students on Thursday.

Dr Merkel, who was in the country for a one-day official visit, visited UP’s Future Africa campus after meeting with President Cyril Ramaphosa and visiting a local BMW factory earlier in the day. Just over 200 students from across the University’s nine faculties had the once-in-a-lifetime chance to ask the Chancellor any question. And Tukkies grabbed the opportunity with both hands during the open dialogue moderated by political analyst and UP lecturer in the Department of Political Science Dr Sithembile Mbete.

UP Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Tawana Kupe, German Chancellor Dr Angela Merkel and Dr Sithembile Mbete on stage as students get ready to ask their questions.

“Dr Merkel, we are so honoured that you could join us for this dialogue and conversation,” Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Tawana Kupe said in his opening remarks. “As you know, dialogue and conversation are the heart and soul of any democracy. We’re also grateful you are here for another reason: for your stellar leadership on the global stage in a humane, globalist and inclusive way in addressing the immigration crisis that affects the rest of the world. We’re also happy that you’ve come to forge relationships in South Africa, a key nation on the African continent.”

Chancellor Merkel shared that her love for South Africa, which she initially discovered because of the powerful story of former President Nelson Mandela, is what has kept her coming back to the country. This was her third visit, but her first opportunity to engage with South African students, something she enjoys doing in countries she visits. “Our two countries are rather far away geographically, but 30 years ago when Nelson Mandela was released from prison, this resonated with me. Nelson Mandela was the great personality that not only inspired people and had an impact on their lives in South Africa, but also far beyond the country as well. Many people in Germany were inspired by his example as well.”

A scientist by trade, Dr Merkel fielded questions ranging from her opinion on interdisciplinary collaboration in academia to how, based on her experience, Eskom might tackle the ‘herculean’ task of becoming an efficient power producer, to a question about specific decisions taken by the German government on the sensitive issue of Israel and Palestine.

While this was Dr Angela Merkel's third visit to South Africa, it was the first opportunity she's had to engage with South African students.

One student asked what role she thinks South Africa will play in the future of Germany, to which Dr Merkel responded: “We just visited the BMW works here in Pretoria. I believe this was the first BMW factory that was built abroad, and I think it works very well. I think that there is huge opportunity for more economic operations, but also for exchanges of students. I offered to South Africa – and that offer was accepted – that every year we receive 12 students in a scholarship programme, and this means you can study for a year in Germany, and experience the country better. We do this with Brazil, Russia, India and now with South Africa. We wish to cooperate more closely in education and professional training, and I think on climate protection too we can do more.”

Dr Merkel added that because South Africa is so popular among Germans as a travel destination, they felt very at home in the country.

UP Student Representative Council President David Kabwa remarked that the Future Africa auditorium was a rather apt setting for this conversation, because it speaks to the future of transdisciplinary research in Africa and aims to tackle some of the continent’s biggest problems. Kabwa asked: “Your background is very much rooted in a variety of disciplines, particularly the sciences. And yet your current role is moving in the exact opposite direction. In a context that we find ourselves where transdisciplinary research is so important, for many South Africans we can’t finish a discipline and go right into another one. Is it possible to be in one discipline, have a bit of a delay, then go into another, yet still be effective?”

UP SRC President David Kabwa.

The Chancellor responded: “I do think this is possible. I myself studied physics, then later on dealt with physical chemistry and a lot more with chemistry later on than with physics. The work of an interdisciplinary researcher is characterised by the fact that he or she must know their discipline very well. I think the huge importance is that you must learn how to learn. That allows you to get into other disciplines. We know from sociology that successful groups are those that work across disciplines. Modern work means more interdisciplinary work. Working in silos is in the past. Digitisation is eradicating those hierarchies and I also think that this is also efficient.”

After South Africa, Dr Merkel’s African visit continued in Angola.

*To watch Chancellor Angela Merkel’s full conversation with University of Pretoria students, click here.

- Author Masego Panyane
Published by Hlengiwe Mnguni

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