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University of Pretoria VC Visits Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture

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University of Pretoria (UP) Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Tawana Kupe has called on African universities to become champions of transformation both internally and across the continent, in a joint effort to transform African societies. He was delivering a keynote address at the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM) Annual General Meeting (AGM), held in Harare, Zimbabwe, from 12 to 16 December 2022.

“The new African university must be involved in a double act of transformation – transforming itself, and at the same time transforming society,” Prof Kupe said. “Without this double act the credibility and legitimacy of our universities as transformative actors will be questioned, and our impact blunted.”

During his address, titled ‘Repositioning African Universities to respond to contemporary challenges and opportunities: What will it take?’, he also emphasised the necessity of ensuring Africa’s universities are sustainable, well-governed, well-managed, well-funded, and well-resourced. “[They must also] enjoy academic freedom, freedom of inquiry, as well as institutional autonomy in order to better deliver on national and continental goals. Poor governance and management, lack of resources and infrastructure, and narrow political control disable African universities from creating high-quality knowledge from African perspectives that can effectively address African problems.”

RUFORUM was established in 2004 by 10 Vice-Chancellors. It is a consortium of 157 African universities operating across 40 countries spanning the African continent. The organisation evolved from its predecessor, the Forum on Agricultural Resource Husbandry (FORUM), a programme of the Rockefeller Foundation. In July 2014 RUFORUM signed a cooperation agreement with the African Union to support the implementation of the new African Union for Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa 2024.

According to its website, “RUFORUM supports universities to address the important and largely unfulfilled role that universities play in contributing to the well‐being of small‐scale farmers and economic development of countries throughout the sub‐Saharan Africa region.” The 2022 AGM was the 18th one, and it was held under the theme ‘Strengthening Africa’s Agri-food Systems in the Post COVID-19 Era – Opportunities and Challenges’.

Throughout his address Prof Kupe called on African universities to work together, using their collective talents to respond to the continent’s contemporary challenges, especially in the wake of the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic. “We are realising that disruptions of similar magnitude are inevitable and will be experienced more frequently. A ‘new unusual’ that is dynamic and uncertain has overtaken a ‘new normal’.”

He identified political conflict, rising populism, corruption, and the triple scourges of poverty, inequality, and unemployment as ubiquitous problems that are putting democratic systems and global rule-making under stress. He added that these continental and global challenges are being aggravated by misinformation, disinformation, and the rejection of science and facts – and the challenges are magnified in Africa because of the vulnerability of many African systems.

Prof Kupe cited examples of how global and continental systems hampered and slowed African responses to recent crises, including: the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on weak economic and social systems; nationalistic and protectionist agendas from the global North that inhibited African access to preventative vaccines until much later in the pandemic; the amplified effect in Africa of the threat to global food security arising from the current political conflict and war in Ukraine; and the impacts of climate change, which are likely to be felt more acutely across Africa.

“Notwithstanding such challenges, our untapped opportunities are profound,” he said. “The African potential is vast. We are endowed with immensely talented and resilient people, and our young population has the potential to be our greatest strength… Our universities are well placed to create spaces for dialogue where multiple voices can contribute to a better understanding of the problems we face, and can also begin to create the necessary solutions.”

He reiterated his call on African universities to work collaboratively, saying, “We are best placed to own the solutions: Solutions from Africa, and for the world.”