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President Xi Visits Arab and African Countries, Attends BRICS Summit > South Africa
The Power of Academia
Adam Habib, Vice Chancellor and Principal of Wits University spoke with CHINAFRICA on academic partnerships and exchanges, and what purpose they serve in fortifying the China-Africa relationship
 ChinAfrica | VOL.9 October 2017
China's role in the development of the African continent via trade and infrastructure is well documented. Less is known, however, about the academic exchanges between institutions of higher learning and the capacity they have in further strengthening Africa-China relations. To this end, in late August, Professor Adam Habib, Vice Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits University), in Johannesburg, South Africa, led a delegation of academics to China to visit a number of universities, including the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Peking University and Tsinghua University.Habib is also the chair of Universities South Africa, an organization representing public universities in the country. The visits were in aid of exploring opportunities for research collaboration in engineering, medicine and science and are believed to be strongly aligned with both South African and Chinese national priorities, including the Belt and Road Initiative. ChinAfrica spoke with Habib to get his views on academic partnerships and exchanges, and what purpose they serve in fortifying the China-Africa relationship. Edited excerpts of his view follow:

 

Professor Adam Habib 

ChinAfrica: In your letter to President Qiu Yong of Tsinghua University, you mentioned that Wits University would like to work with Chinese universities to further strengthen Africa-China relations. What role can universities play in this aspect?  

Adam Habib: What is the purpose of a university? Let's start there. It seems to be that a university has multiple roles in any institution. First, it's to provide professionals for society and for the world; the second is to actually enable universities to produce knowledge that solves social problems; and the third is to create a collective citizenship that goes beyond nation, that goes beyond continent [and] that becomes and creates a kind of global citizenship. So for South Africans, you can be both African and you can be human; for Chinese, you can be both Chinese and you can be part of a human community. And so that's the purpose of a university and it seems to me that universities are fundamental in creating better relationships around the world.

So, when Wits University students come to Tsinghua University or Peking University and when Peking University or Tsinghua University students go to Wits University, not only do they create a global community and academy of scholars, but what they also create is a combined collective universal citizenship, and that's why universities are so fundamental.

What are your comments on 20+20 Cooperation Plan for Chinese and African Institutions of Higher Education in promoting academic exchanges? 

I think it's absolutely crucial [academic partnerships between Africa and China]. I don't think we have done enough of it.

Tsinghua University, we were told by the ambassador, has just been in the process of training 50 South African students in nuclear engineering - now that is useful. One of the people on my team has spent the last six months at Peking University at the School of International Studies. So effectively, there is some collaboration happening, but we need to do far more and we're never simply going to do it by throwing money at it. Money is important, but what we need is an energetic targeted agenda and that's what this [visit] is about, to try and see if we can begin to create that kind of energy around these projects.

A focus of your visit to China is to explore opportunities for research collaboration in engineering, medicine and science. Why did you focus on these three areas? 

We don't have sufficient projects in engineering, medicine and science. We already have a number of projects in the humanities. We've got a project in journalism, for instance, that is happening; we've got projects in other areas, but we want to start ensuring that our collaboration with Chinese institutions is across all of the disciplines, not simply in one or another discipline. And so the idea is, we're growing big data in South Africa and we know that Chinese universities are growing big data, too. So that is an area we want to focus on.

 

Many African students study in Chinese universities every year

Wits University is well known for its China-Africa Reporting Project. What was the main reason for establishing this project? In addition, what is your opinion on the role of media in strengthening people-to-people contacts between China and Africa? 

I think the reason for establishing this project was that we have a very strong journalism school and we felt there are many lessons to be learned by enabling an environment where Chinese journalists understand Africa much better - if you're going to report on Africa, you need to understand Africa. And if South African journalists want to report on China, they need to understand China. So, the reason is to give you some sort of acclimatization of our respective society and that's what we are beginning to do, and that's what the project has done.

The media plays an important role; the media can fracture our relationships or it can enable relationships, and that's why this project was so important. Media needs to learn to tell the story in a way that people are comfortable with - not to self-aggrandize, because that's not our purpose. But the media needs to be able to tell the story from the perspective of the people themselves. Why do they make the decisions they do? Why do they confront the issues they do? Why do they think through the policies they do? And there's a difference between people-to-people engagement and state-to-state engagements. That's important to understand.

The public is not the same as the state. The state has an agenda. It's an institutional agenda and it might very well be a legitimate agenda as is business; but our agenda, which is a public agenda, is to reflect the plurality of views in our respective societies. I emphasize the "plurality" of views because even our societies are not homogenous societies. They are desegregated in multiplicity, in racial terms, in linguistic terms and in cultural terms. And we need to reflect the entirety of those stories. That's what we need to do in both China and in Africa.

Every year, the Chinese Government provides scholarships for African students to study in Chinese universities. There are also many Chinese students studying in South African universities. Do you have any advice for students embarking on this cross pollination of study exchanges? 

The world is changing and we are all going to be a part of a common humanity whether we like it or not. So, learning in other societies is important. What I would like to say is that students need to learn to immerse themselves into the society. Don't live in some "ivory tower" in the universities and become a part of the very societies we live in.

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