University of Pretoria African Centre for the Study of the United States turns its critical gaze on the super power

Posted on March 11, 2022

The University of Pretoria has just established its own African Centre for the Study of the United States (ACSUS) and this is significant as it comes with high expectations of contributing to bridge the knowledge deficit for Africa in its relations and engagements with the United States.

Top universities around the world have research centres and think-tanks dedicated to the interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary study of other countries or regions, and the broad purpose is to understand the historical, social, political, economic, and cultural development of the countries and peoples they study. It is not only a worthwhile venture for knowledge’s sake, but also helpful in formulating domestic and foreign policies to further the national interests of their states. In this way these universities not only justify their mandates as citadels of learning, but also as influencers of global politics and international relations in general. In the United States, there are over 40 institutions across universities in the country that study Africa, and this dates to 1948 when the first African Studies centre was established at the Northwestern University of Illinois by renowned anthropologist Melville Herskovits.  How has Africa fared in this penetrative gaze on it which has grown exponentially over the last 74 years? 

The record shows that the continent has not scratched the surface of studying the US, a world power it has engaged with since 1945, and which has numerous political, military and commercial interests in Africa including cultural connections to it. As a result, the continent engages with the US from a disadvantaged position, and this needs to change. So far, there are only two research think-tanks in Africa dedicated to studying the US comprehensively. These are the American Language Centre (ALC) in Morocco and the African Centre for the Study of the United States (ACSUS) at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa. The birth of the ACSUS-UP is thus significant as, although it will be the second such Centre in South Africa and only the third in Africa, it is primed to be the launchpad for other similar centres across African universities through its pan-Africanist, cross-institutional and transdisciplinary outlook.

So, what really is ACSUS-UP? What will be its research niche focus? What benefits will studying the US state and society offer the academic, policy makers, economic actors and Africans in general? Could the different social actors in the US itself benefit from how Africans understand it? Is the United States waning as a military and economic superpower in the face of rising competition from China? Is democracy failing and the US headed to becoming a right-wing dictatorship?

Answers to these questions can only come from a focused and comprehensive study of the US as a nation and society to help Africa produce much-needed knowledge that will help inform its foreign policy and economic engagement with the US. This is what ACSUS-UP is committed to, not only as a research think-tank, but also to produce African experts on the US as called for by an article in the Africa Portal on why Africa needs more think-tanks that study the US. Indeed, Africa needs these experts in her embassies, foreign ministries, corporates, academia, the media and civil society to influence the formulation of domestic and foreign policies that further our national interests as states, and as a continental bloc.

The vision therefore of the African Centre for the Study of the United States, University of Pretoria, is to be a top think-tank and premier African knowledge-creation hub in the field of studies of the United States and South African/African-US cooperation in the pursuit of regional integration, scientific enquiry, and global socio-economic and geopolitical change. In collaboration with ACSUS at Wits University as a partner Centre, ACSUS-UP will be a local structure and network centre that will have an interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary scope. It will promote scholarly research and exchanges, policy engagement, business interactions and cultural contact between African and American universities and knowledge communities in areas of mutual interest that benefit the University of Pretoria in its academic project. This shall include exchange programmes for staff and students in an interfaculty engagement, yet also shows direct alignment to current UP platforms such as Future Africa, the Javett-UP Art Centre, Engineering 4.0 and others.

More specifically, ACSUS-UP will pursue a defined agenda. First, to do collaborative research on issues of common interest to Africa and the US and share experiences in curriculum design and structure, teaching methodologies and student-learning evaluation systems. Second, promote international scientific meetings, workshops, seminars and conferences on subjects of mutual interest. Third, to facilitate academic exchanges between the staff and students of universities in South Africa and the rest of the continent with their US counterparts with a focus on mobility of doctoral and postdoctoral fellowships. Pursuant to these goals it will also set up working teams/groups to study the possibility of running joint degrees between partner universities. Fourth, to promote dialogues that contribute to building a better world by fostering intercontinental South–North conversations on mutual challenges and innovations in identifiable domains.

It’s mandate shall include the publication of both academic and non-academic outputs – books, book chapters, journal articles; the development of short training courses aimed specifically at the diplomatic community, the training of postgraduate students in fields related to the study of the United States, and community engagement in the form of relationships and purposeful interactions with the diplomatic corps and other communities (governments, corporates, civil societies) of the continent and the United States, bringing universities closer to them and them closer to the university.

Professor Tawana Kupe is Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Pretoria (UP) and Professor Christopher Isike is a Professor in UP’s Department of Political Sciences.

- Author Professor Tawana Kupe and Professor Christopher Isike

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