Tawana Kupe: It takes a continent to raise the Africa we want


Africans across the world celebrate Africa Day on May 25. It is the day that the precursor to the African Union (AU), the Organisation for African Unity (OAU) came into being in 1963 which symbolically recognised the unity of all the peoples of Africa. It 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 the outstanding conflicts and achieve peace across it. 

This year, the Covid-19 global pandemic has put a damper on the customary celebrations and at the University of Pretoria (UP) we will miss the show that students put together to share their unique culture, traditional dress, songs and dances from countries across the continent. 

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 prejudices against fellow Africans in every African country. No African should be called a foreign national in another African country. We in South Africa must avoid confusing the relatively high level of development of some of our sectors compared to the rest of the continent with being not African. After all, our country bears the name of the continent. The fate of all African countries is bound together. We prosper or suffer sustained underdevelopment together.

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 methods such as 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 such as Covid-19, ebola, HIV/AIDS, TB, malaria and other communicable diseases which know no borders.

Although 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 democratic systems that empower our people and respect all their human rights including women’s rights. 

Economic liberation is still far off and 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 the coronavirus pandemic. Every cloud has a silver lining, however, 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 the planned academic calendars across the continent. Although 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 the disease, 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 its research.

UP’s contributions

It will require a multi-sectoral and transdisciplinary research focus to help us resuscitate our economies, health care and education systems. Thus, continental transdisciplinary research hubs such as UP’s Future Africa Institute and campus will become all the more important for putting the intellectual resources and research together to enable us to uplift ourselves post-Covid-19. 

In addition, the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) has urged all its partner institutions to try to find a vaccine and to understand the local context of the virus. UP will be  participating in the World Health Organization’s multi-centre clinical trial for Africa. We are also using our MakerSpace to produce face shields, and have seconded a researcher to the presidential task team for statistics 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 diseases which are of public health concern in Africa and globally.

According to the National Research Foundation (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 demographic information. We are also investigating the stochastic behaviour of incubation periods of viral respiratory diseases. We have an international collaboration to propose a new mathematical model for the transmission dynamics of Covid-19 while assessing the effects 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 done 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 we are part of the continent and our research has an effect on Africa’s various contexts. 

We also collaborate with other global institutions, such as the Wageningen University & Research (WUR) in the Netherlands.

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 is facing. 

More importantly, we are working together to transform lives and societies at a time where every country in the world is inward focused, our focus is based on the greater good of our whole continent and our shared futures.

Professor Tawana Kupe is the vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Pretoria

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