‘A radical change effort is needed’ – Prof Tawana Kupe on how Africa can achieve its sustainability goals in a post-COVID-19 world

Posted on March 29, 2021

Earlier this month we concluded the University of Pretoria’s inaugural Africa Week, where we assembled some of the finest minds and most tenacious champions of higher education from across our continent.

In this gathering, we were well aware that the institutions of higher education which we represented are all an integral part of society, and that our very success depends on a world that is thriving, where human dignity and justice are paramount, where all people are able to reach their full potential, while nobody is left behind, and that our development does not happen at the expense of our planet. We also recognised the critical role that universities must play in securing the future of our continent.

True to our African identity, we met in a spirit of collaboration and transdisciplinarity, coupled with a deep concern for our humanity, and for the common good of all people. Together, we faced up to the challenges confronting us, resolving to own them, and to address them with the wealth of talents  possessed. We shared a compelling sense of belief, that by mobilising and harnessing our vast collective talents, we are surely up to the task of responding to the myriad challenges ahead.

During the series of events held, we affirmed our leadership and commitment to partnerships to build capacity in Africa, and to accelerate impact at scale so that we can still achieve Agenda 2063 and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in a post-COVID-19 world. We looked at how we could navigate the complexity inherent to our sustainable development challenges, and were forward-looking and future-focused as we reimagined universities as both sources of knowledge and education, as well as agents for societal development.

Compounding our challenge is the reality that the complexity we live in is not static. It is dynamic and full of uncertainty, with unexpected and unpleasant surprises, as we so clearly saw with the COVID-19 pandemic. But in true testimony to our resolve, we turn threats into opportunities, and as we demonstrated with the COVID-19 pandemic, we did not let a good crisis go to waste. We reimagined, we adapted, and we found new ways to continue fulfilling our purpose across all our different stakeholders.

Within this broad and messy milieu, our conversations reinforced the imperative that in being responsive to changing societal needs, our positive impacts must be demonstrated in tangible and measurable ways. In the absence of making a compelling difference, our institutions become redundant, and are replaced by ones which do.

As a central challenge to development in Africa, and with clear intent to be responsive to the continent’s needs, we explored pathways of sustainable food systems in Africa. Achieving our shared goal of ZERO HUNGER by 2030 remains difficult, and we know that it will only be achieved through working together to find ways to transform how the world produces, consumes and thinks about food. We believe that our deliberations will provide a valuable contribution to the Food Systems Summit which the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will convene later this year.

The process of reimagining is by its very nature creative and exciting as we envision our role and contribution to a future that we all believe in. Yet at the same time, we are mindful of the hard work required to achieve the transformation needed to turn our good ideas and intentions into reality. While we are still grappling with the detail of the work ahead, we know that it entails a radical change effort. It includes examining our organisational structures and cultures to ensure that they are future-fit and are enablers of agility, innovation and responsiveness. Within our organisations, we need to understand and build the capabilities we need for the future, and re-examine and redesign the processes we use in running our organisations and delivering our service offerings. Our hard and soft infrastructure may need to be adapted, upgraded or repurposed to support our reimagined strategic intent. All of this needs to be done through leveraging technology, and in a way where transdisciplinarity and collaboration are embedded and hardwired by design into our core functions of research, education, and engagement.

In this transformation we are charting new territory, and its ultimate success will be determined by our ability to learn and share knowledge with each other, collectively seeking an iterative and ongoing cycle of renewal and resilience.

As we go forward, we will maintain the momentum we have created. Our African Vice Chancellor’s Forum forms the basis of a powerful guiding coalition, and we will continue to collaborate and strengthen the partnerships we have formed.

For our part, the University of Pretoria will work on convening this as an annual event. We also put forward our four strategic transdisciplinary platforms – the Future Africa institute, Engineering 4.0 development, Javett Art Centre, and Innovation [email protected] – as potential vehicles to enable our reimagined agenda. In the course of this year, we will be strengthening a common and integrated approach across the four platforms for greater leverage and impact. We will continue to push the boundaries with our Africa Global University Project, and in May we will host Africa’s first Nobel Prize Dialogue. The meeting will bring together Nobel laureates, opinion leaders, policy makers, students, researchers and the public to engage in conversations on “The Future of Work”. The event will culminate in the launch of the Centre for the Study of the Future of Work.

Altogether, we have exciting times ahead. I urge you all to be part of the transformation, and to be part of a relentless pursuit for a better world. That is our calling.

This is an edited version of the Vice-Chancellor’s closing remarks at the Africa Week programme co-hosted by the University of Pretoria and the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN).

- Author Professor Tawana Kupe
Published by Hlengiwe Mnguni

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