Building the Africa we want – Africa Day message from Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Tawana Kupe

Posted on May 24, 2020

Africans across the world celebrate Africa Day on 25 May. This day commemorates the founding of the Organisation for African Unity, the precursor to today’s African Union (AU), in 1963. Africa Day is an opportunity to celebrate African diversity and success, and to highlight the cultural and economic potential that exists on the African continent while we strive to resolve ongoing conflicts and achieve peace across the continent. For sustainable development to enable prosperity the guns have to be silenced now. Armed conflicts on the continent have a disproportionate effect on women, children, the youth and disadvantaged people across the continent.

This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has put a damper on the customary celebrations, but this does not diminish the importance of the day. Many of our students from across the continent have gone home to their countries, and I hope that they are all safe and healthy. We are working on strategies to enable these students to continue to study. I also want you to know that we are missing the annual Africa Day celebrations which the students put together to share their unique culture, traditional dress, songs and dances from across the continent with all of us at UP.

African countries should use this situation to further strengthen our bonds as a continent. In this regard we need to eradicate xenophobia, Afrophobia and other forms of hatred and prejudice against fellow Africans in every African country. No African should be called a ‘foreign national’ in an African country. We in South Africa must avoid confusing the relatively high level of development of some of our sectors, when compared to the rest of the continent, to somehow being ‘not African’. After all we are the only country whose name is a geographic coordinate combined with the name of our continent – South Africa. The fate of all African countries is bound together. We prosper or suffer together if there if development is not sustained and encouraged across Africa.

Although we may be in lockdown for our own health and safety, carefully managed aid, commercial support and solidarity between countries will help to unify and strengthen us. This includes a rallying call to African nations to support each other in order to survive the pandemic, through methods such as carefully managed supply chain logistics to transport food, medicine, and personal protective equipment. Not so long ago, many African nations stood in full support of each other’s liberation movements that fought off oppressive colonial and apartheid regimes. Today, Africa reunites to fight off the scourge of illnesses like COVID-19, Ebola, HIV/AIDS, TB, malaria, and other communicable diseases which know no borders.

While we have unshackled ourselves from the yoke of colonialism and apartheid through the help of our fellow Africans and other supportive nations, we have struggled with institutionalising democracy systems that empower our people and respect all their human rights including women’s rights. UP plays a critical role in this in our selection of Human Rights in Africa master’s programmes presented by the Centre for Human Rights. We hope that the signing of the African Free Trade Act in 2019 promises a better future for economic integration and realisation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the AU’s Agenda 2063 The Africa We Want.

Africa’s development agendas will now have to be proactively and urgently re-engineered to align with the unfolding ‘new normal’ as a result of COVID-19. Every cloud has a silver lining, and this is the opportunity to recommit to creating a continent characterised by peace and stability, unity, integration, solidarity, participatory democracy, economic prosperity, and social justice. Africa and its countries should take their place among the nations that develop their people’s potential so they enjoy high standards of living free from poverty, disease and unemployment and use natural resources in sustainable ways.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had detrimental effects on academic calendars across the continent, and some universities have taken their classes online. While there are challenges in some areas it is encouraging to note that African universities are putting their research skills to good use in the fight against COVID-19. Universities across the continent are putting their research and innovation interests into all aspects of managing the pandemic, from creating masks to developing hand sanitisers to working on vaccines or protocols. COVID-19 is giving African universities a chance to open up their intellectual property and join the world in trying to fight the pandemic through research.

To fight and limit the spread of the virus will require a multi-sectoral and transdisciplinary research focus to help us resuscitate our economies, and healthcare and education systems. Thus, continental transdisciplinary research hubs like our Future Africa institute and campus will become all the more important in bringing intellectual resources and research together to enable us to uplift ourselves post-COVID-19. Future Africa aims to bring together global researchers, networks of scientists and partners from many disciplines and sectors of the broader community to work on transformative research projects that will seek to resolve some of Africa's complex, complicated and intersectional problems, contributing to Africa's sustainable development.

In addition, the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) has urged all its partner institutions to try to find a vaccine for COVID-19 and to understand the local context of the virus. UP is proud to be part of this, and to be participating in the World Health Organization’s multi-centre clinical trial for Africa. We’re also using our MakerSpace to produce face shields, and have seconded a researcher to the presidential task team for statistic modelling on the crisis. UP is leading a South African Medical Research Council study to develop a rapid test method. We’re collaborating with the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney, Australia, to profile risk in South Africa using whole-genome profiles; and research on the transmission link between animals and human beings. The University’s Centre for Viral Zoonoses currently works with established research groups to find solutions to  arbovirology, bat and other small mammals viral zoonotic disease, which are of public health concern in Africa and globally.

According to the NRF, one of our international collaborations has resulted in an interactive application which provides a synergetic web-based dashboard from COVID-19 data to track COVID-19 demographic information. We’re also investigating the stochastic behaviour of incubation periods of viral respiratory diseases. We are part of an international collaboration to propose a new mathematical model for the transmission dynamics of COVID-19 while assessing the impact of non-pharmaceutical interventions such as social distancing, quarantine and isolation using the threshold quantities. We also have various research projects involving mathematical modelling of biological processes relating to COVID-19. We’ve created a local data repository for COVID-19 as well as a continental one.

Research collaboration during this time is a crucial driver that will make the old adage that we really are stronger together, a reality. Through all of these positive actions, we’ve worked closely with other African universities because at UP we know that what we do today has an impact on our collective future. We collaborate because we are part of the continent and our research has an impact on Africa’s various contexts. Our collaboration with Wageningen University & Research (WUR) in the Netherlands gives us an opportunity to leverage on our transdisciplinary approach to co-create knowledge and innovative technologies for research impact. This also includes the submission of joint proposals for the funding of research and postgraduate education.

I see this collaboration between institutions of higher learning as a continental asset that supports the search for knowledge to maximise innovation and address the ‘wicked challenges’ and stresses that Africa as a continent and Earth as a complex system are facing. More importantly, we are working together to transform lives and societies. At a time where every country in the world is inward-focussed, our focus is based on the greater good of our whole continent and our shared futures.

- Author Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Tawana Kupe

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