AFRICA DAY: ‘Universities are essential to achieving sustained, sustainable and inclusive development in Africa’ – VC Prof Tawana Kupe

Posted on May 25, 2023

Today marks 60 years since the Organisation of African Unity – now known as the African Union (AU) – was founded in 1963 to promote unity and solidarity among African nations during the era of decolonisation.

This diamond celebration is significant for all of us, as it is an opportunity to celebrate African unity, diversity and the continent’s achievements. For the University of Pretoria (UP), it is meaningful because it reminds us of our commitment to transdisciplinary research, which involves continental research collaborations that seek to achieve transformative impact.

We have launched a biennial Future Africa-Africa Week, which is being hosted at the University’s Future Africa Institute under the theme ‘Open Africa, Open Science’. The series of events will provide a space for networking and knowledge-sharing on open science, while affording UP the chance to advance partnerships for joint research and education projects.

The week-long initiative provides UP academics with an enriching opportunity to network and reach out to fellow African scholars in order to strengthen collaborations that address pressing issues such as the burden of disease, food insecurity, sustainable food systems, renewable energy, climate change, infrastructure and poverty reduction, among others.

At the same time, we need to actively engage the African diaspora in research partnerships and collaborations. Many individuals of African descent living outside the continent possess valuable knowledge, skills and resources that can contribute towards improving research and development efforts in Africa. Working closely with them through partnerships and knowledge-exchange programmes can enrich research endeavours on the continent. These collaborative research efforts can help tackle complex issues that require interdisciplinary approaches and diverse perspectives to the benefit of our continent.

South Africa and Africa desperately require capable leaders in every field, leaders who are wise and who have foresight, as well as educated, skilled, well-rounded individuals. In order to secure a durable democratic future, inclusive economic growth and social advancement, we also need strong institutions. High-quality universities that are responsive to local needs, show contextual relevance and rank among the finest on the globe are the kind of institutions that Africa needs. Universities are essential to achieving sustained, sustainable and inclusive development.

Highlighting and integrating indigenous knowledge into research

This Africa Day is also an opportune moment to reflect on the importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education in Africa, and in true transdisciplinary spirit, extend it to science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM). We need to encourage efforts to improve science education at all levels, from primary schools to universities and arts education in general. This includes providing access to quality education, enhancing science curricula, and promoting STEM and STEAM careers among African youth.

Our rich indigenous knowledge systems must also be recognised and celebrated across the continent. Indigenous knowledge often holds valuable insights and solutions that can inform future research and development efforts. Highlighting and integrating indigenous knowledge into research can lead to more contextually appropriate, sustainable outcomes and more transdisciplinary collaborations with higher impact. I would like for you to constantly ask yourself how you can use the rich indigenous knowledge on our continent to enhance your research.

As institutions of higher learning, we do not operate in isolation. We exist because of society, and it follows that we should be functioning for the good of society. This calls for us to increase our relevance and efforts to achieve greater societal impact that is characterised by inclusivity and clear contributions to just, sustainable development.

Through their collaborative design and aspirational outlook, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide us with an accepted framework from which to shape our actions in a way that is relevant to society. The question is not whether we will meet these goals, but what will we do to meet them. South Africa’s National Development Plan and the continent’s development blueprint, Agenda 2063, entreat us to use education and knowledge to create sustainable futures.

At the Knowledge Equity Network conference held last year, scholars from all over the world discussed the need for a world-first declaration for equitable human knowledge sharing, one that is unhindered by the barriers of cost, time or national borders. The declaration has since been developed, and a UP signing will take place during Africa Week. Imagine what could happen if we achieved that at the very least.

Universities must be at the forefront of developing knowledge, and must be experienced as agents and drivers of transformative impact. I wish you all a happy Africa Day. Let us continue to make a positive impact in our respective areas, and make Africa a sustainable, prosperous continent!

- Author Professor Tawana Kupe

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