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African scientists take the lead to improve society — Prof Wim de Villiers
Author: Prof Wim de Villiers Rector and Vice-Chancellor/ Rektor en Visekanselier
Published: 03/02/2023

​The recent Global Scholars Academy, presented by Stellenbosch University (SU)'s Law Faculty and the Harvard Law School's Institute for Global Law and Policy, provided the opportunity for scholars from six continents to engage with their peers on the world's most pressing issues. In an opinion piece for News24 (1 February 2023), Prof Wim de Villiers, SU's Rector and Vice-Chancellor, reflects on this collaborative event, and others, as a signpost of Africa's rising voice in addressing societal needs.

  • Read the article below or click here for the piece as published.

To thrive in the South African higher education sector takes grit, determination, and hard work. Budget cuts, uncertainty regarding funding for National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) students, inflation, load shedding – these are just some of the issues that threaten our efforts, not only to educate and empower the youth of our country, but to conduct effective research that has real impact in the world.

We're certainly not the only sector to suffer. The obvious issues with our power grid, water shortage in certain parts of the country, and various other obstacles have a knock-on effect that affect all sectors, businesses, corporations, and individuals. And it's clear that government alone can't be expected to provide solutions to these problems.

As we've experienced during the Covid-19-pandemic, challenges also present opportunity, and the ever-changing nature of learning and teaching and the ability to conduct meaningful research provide moments for universities to adapt and think of solutions to help improve the lives of people in our communities.

When I refer to communities, I mean local, national, and global. South African universities attract many international students, and we have enormous capacity to shape thought and have societal impact. More and more, the global community is waking up to scientific research from our continent. It has had a global ripple effect, shifting the narrative from research about Africa and Africans, to research by Africans for Africans and the rest of the world.

As was demonstrated with the identification and reporting of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 in 2021, our scientists make ground-breaking discoveries that benefits the entire world.

But none of this happens without collaboration.

Global collaboration

At SU, the year kicked off with the Global Scholars Academy (GSA), a partnership between SU's Faculties of Law and of Economic and Management Sciences and the prestigious Harvard Law School's Institute for Global Law and Policy (IGLP) in the United States. The GSA was hosted in Stellenbosch.

The aim was to bring together both distinguished and young scholars from all over the world to debate some of the world's most pressing issues in the field of international law, policy, and economics. Participants from every continent – almost a third of the more than 130 participants came from Africa – from diverse backgrounds, gathered to discuss and rigorously debate issues that range from structural poverty, human rights, inequality and migration to international economic and legal policies, environmental sustainability, and global security.

The outcomes from the event will no doubt have an impact on various communities throughout the globe. And we aim to host it again in the future.

Nobel in Africa

Another example of the global scientific community spotlighting African research, is the Nobel in Africa Symposium, held at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (STIAS), in October last year with a focus on Physics. There were more than 150 participants.

According to the United Nations, more than half of global population growth between now and 2050 is expected to occur in Africa. Africa has the highest rate of population growth among major areas. The population of sub-Saharan Africa is projected to double by 2050.

With statistics like these, intellectual investment in our continent makes sense. The symposium series showcased the knowledge production and research potential on our continent.

Through the initiative, STIAS became the first institution outside of Scandinavia to host Nobel Symposia on behalf of the Nobel Foundation since the symposium series was initiated in 1965. And the fact that the STIAS-SU-hosted Physics symposium, also included an outreach element that saw participants deliver public lectures at universities and research institutes countrywide, was a way of taking science to our communities.

This year the series topic is Chemistry with a focus on Tuberculosis and Antibiotic Resistance – two major health challenges facing humanity.

Research for impact

The two aforementioned events show that the most pressing issues often require meaningful collaborative research that directly impacts society, whether it's through policy or as guidelines.

An example of such research is the work done by our very own Prof Tulio de Oliveira, director of SU's Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation, and his team's work on genomic surveillance, that has had significant impact on medical science. This work was showcased as of one of the Top 10 breakthrough technologies in 2022 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) publication Technological Review, and Prof de Oliveira, together with Dr Sikhulile Moyo, laboratory director for the Botswana-Harvard HIV Reference Laboratory and an SU alumnus, were chosen as Time magazine's 100 most influential people.

This is just one example of the many African scientists whose work contributes to improving society at large. And where collaboration leads to discovery.

Climate Studies

Furthermore, the urgency for climate research is increasing rapidly. At SU our School for Climate Studies is barely a year old, but has made an important impact already. The School engaged Global Youth Climate ambassadors in organising a week of Youth-led climate events – the so-called Climate X week in the lead-up to COP27 in Egypt and towards the end of last year hosted the African Regional Forum on Climate Change, with 16 African nationalities present.

Given the many global challenges we face, it is becoming clear that research for the sake of research won't cut it anymore. We have to look for lasting solutions with local and international partners if we want to address, among others, climate change, disease, hunger, poverty, unemployment and growing inequality. Not working in silos, venturing out of comfort zones, actively creating networks – this is what we need to secure our future.

The Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka, the first black African to win the Nobel prize for literature, said: “No one is rich enough to buy yesterday, but if you hustle hard, tomorrow could be yours."

Now is the time for African researchers to hustle, to put in the work, to ensure that generations to come will benefit from our labour and that Africa takes up its rightful place in global science.