Africa Day, commemorated annually on 25 May, this year marks 59 years since the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) was born. This day celebrates Africa's strong cultural identity and common heritage – and this year the University of Pretoria (UP) community also celebrates the African Genius Awards (AGA).
These awards, now in their second year, seek to identify and – through a rigorous nomination and research process – honour outstanding individuals who contribute to Africa’s growth. The awards are not about positions in society or professions, but rather about possessing a unique skill that affects society positively – the Genius should have a proven constructive and encouraging impact. The AGA serves as an inspiration to young people on the continent to be innovative and resilient, despite the continent’s challenges.
Today, as we know, South Africa and Africa urgently need good leaders in every sector; leaders who have foresight and wisdom and who are well-educated, well-skilled, rounded citizens. We also need strong institutions that can anchor sustainable democratic futures, inclusive economic development, and social progress. Among the institutions Africa needs are high-quality universities that are locally responsive, that demonstrate contextual relevance, and that are comparable to the best globally. Universities thus have a critical role to play in achieving sustained, sustainable and inclusive development.
Universities must embrace this role without hesitation. Africa is rich in natural resources and has a growing and youthful population, but has yet to achieve inclusive and sustainable development. To address this paradoxical situation requires scale and critical mass in its knowledge institutions. To be able to play their role effectively in Africa’s futures, universities must enjoy academic freedom and institutional autonomy. Equally as important, universities must be well-governed, effectively and efficiently managed, and be well-resourced to deliver on their mandates. They must also embrace sustainability in everything they do.
I am proud to say that the University of Pretoria is making strides in finding solutions for not only South African challenges, but for the continent as a whole. As a testament to this, we recently launched two strategic centres, the first being the Centre for the Future of Work. The establishment of this epicentre for the study of the future of work in Africa further cements UP’s vision of being a leading research-intensive university in Africa, recognised internationally for its quality, relevance, and impact, and also for developing people, creating knowledge, and making a difference locally and globally. We are excited by how this Centre will advance the knowledge field around the future of work to the benefit of South Africa, Africa, and the rest of the international community. We also look forward to reaping tangible results through a generation of employees and entrepreneurs who are equipped and motivated to take on the complexities of what the workplace will look like in years to come.
We also recently launched the African Centre for the Study of the United States (ACSUS-UP). ACSUS-UP is aligned to the University’s strategic plan and key transdisciplinary platforms such as the Future Africa Institute and Campus, the Javett-UP Art Centre, Engineering 4.0, Innovation Africa @UP, and the Centre for the Future of Work, all of which foster a collaborative research culture across the university community worldwide and help create a critical mass of researchers for new-knowledge generation. We are grateful that we already have strong partnerships with several universities and institutions in the US, and we look forward to extending these as ACSUS-UP promotes scholarly research and interfaculty exchanges for staff and students. The Centre will also foster policy engagement, business interactions and cultural contact between African and American universities and epistemic communities in areas of mutual interest and benefit.
ACSUS-UP is the second such centre in South Africa, after the African Centre for the Study of the United States at the University of Witwatersrand, and the third in Africa, alongside the American Language Centre (ALC) in Morocco. ACSUS-UP’s core activities will include research in a variety of cross-cutting disciplinary areas: geopolitics and geostrategy; food security; water and energy; One Health programmes; inequalities; and social justice and human rights. Other areas include history and heritage studies; economic development and sustainable futures; smart infrastructure and innovation; international trade; climate change; and human and animal interactions with the environment and natural resources. Its mandate will include the publication of both academic and non-academic outputs; 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 governments, industries, business and civil society organisations on the continent and in the US, bringing universities closer to them and them closer to universities. This will foster intercontinental South–North conversations about mutual challenges and innovations in response to the complex wicked problems that Africa, the US and the world are facing, as expressed by the global Sustainable Development Goals.
It is no longer just a bold statement that the future of the world hinges on the future of Africa. This is because Africa’s population of more than 1.3 billion will double by the middle of this century, potentially rising to four billion people by 2100 – or around one third of the world’s population. It is also the youngest population, and so there is a unique opportunity to educate and upskill a generation who are well versed in African-generated knowledge and will have a nuanced understanding of other nations, which informs their thinking, actions and interactions – whether these be political, economic or trade relations, or cultural intersections and exchanges.
At the University of Pretoria we are passionate about our continent’s potential to thrive as a knowledge economy that relies on itself for solutions to its own challenges. I strongly believe that universities need to be at the forefront of devising these solutions, and need to be strongly and visibly experienced as key drivers and collaborative agents of change on our continent.