HIGHER EDUCATION OP-ED
University of Pretoria to launch pioneering Centre for Asian Studies in Africa
The connections between Asia and Africa are many and they are dense. They stretch back in historical time, they shape our present, and they will most certainly animate our future in decisive ways. Recognising this, the University of Pretoria is about to launch its response to this demand – the Centre for Asian Studies in Africa.
Our current moment is often referred to as the Asian century. Whereas different meanings are attributed to this term and experts disagree as to how accurately it describes our times, there is no doubt that it touches upon a very significant global transformation – namely Asia’s rise as a force to be reckoned with in the world economy and in international politics.
Let’s consider some simple economic indicators.
In 1970, Asia accounted for some 20% of global Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Fifty years later, in the early 2020s, Asia is the world’s largest continental economy and accounts for more than 33% of global GDP. Some projections suggest that this will increase to 50% by 2050.
In addition to this, the continent, which from its western edges to the Pacific Ocean makes up 30% of the planet’s total land area and contains 60% of its population, is making its presence count in the realm of geopolitics and global governance and influencing cultural dynamics worldwide.
It goes without saying that this transformation is consequential for South Africa and the African continent. The connections between Asia and Africa are many and they are dense. These connections stretch back in historical time, they shape our present, and they will most certainly animate our future in decisive ways. Consequential world-systemic transformations throw down intellectual gauntlets in the form of a demand for critical and relevant research-based knowledge. At the University of Pretoria, we are about to launch our response to this demand – the Centre for Asian Studies in Africa (Casa).
Based at one of Africa’s top universities, Casa aims to be a premier hub for knowledge production about Asia and Afro-Asian connections in South Africa and on the African continent. The establishment of Casa confirms the University of Pretoria’s commitment to produce excellence in research on Asia, to promote academic and policy interaction, and to develop scholarly ties between our university and institutions of higher learning in Asia and with scholars of Asia across the world.
Casa’s activities will also extend beyond the academy, engaging actors in wider society and contributing to informed exchanges about Asian dynamics in the South African public sphere.
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Casa launches next week, on 30 November, at the Javett Art Centre – a unique space dedicated to sustained critical enquiries about our country’s past, present, and future. This is a fitting venue for Casa’s beginning, for there is no doubt that our moment in time is not just one of consequential transformations, but also one of consequential global challenges.
Consider, for example, the fact that the world economy in which Asia has emerged as a major player is also an economy of deep inequalities, in which the richest 10% of the world’s population earns 52% of all income and owns 76% of all wealth. The poorest half, in comparison earns 8.5% of total income and possesses 2% of total wealth.
Challenges are also evident in the political realm, where an intensifying wave of autocratisation has rolled back the global democratic advances made in the three decades that have passed since 1989. And crucially, the very real possibility of climate disaster raises pressing questions about the prospects for sustainable planetary futures.
As Casa develops its research activities in the coming years, these global challenges will be squarely at the centre of our work. So will a focus on Asia and its relationship to the Global South. There is no denying that Asian studies and area studies more generally have their roots in unequal encounters – partly, in the colonial encounter between western colonial rulers and the knowledge produced by these rulers about their subjects and their Others; partly, in the subsequent and similarly unequal encounter between a “developed” West and an “underdeveloped” Rest.
It is therefore not insignificant that Casa has been instituted at a point in time when such epistemological asymmetries are increasingly being called into question and even revolted against. Casa will make a concerted effort to contribute to the labour of unsettling and shifting prevailing ideas about the world beyond the West, and about Asia and Afro-Asian connections in particular.
Key to this effort will be South-South collaboration – that is, substantial intellectual collaborations between scholars at the University of Pretoria, other South African and African universities, and leading Asian universities. At Casa, we believe that by building and working through such collaborations, and by serving as a meeting ground for academics across the two continents who share a commitment to addressing urgent global challenges, it is possible to advance epistemic justice and to make knowledge from the global South available for a changing world. DM/MC
Alf Gunvald Nilsen is professor of sociology and director of the Centre for Asian Studies in Africa at the University of Pretoria.